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The Prospects for Sufficientarianism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2012

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Principles of sufficiency are widely discussed in debates about distributive ethics. However, critics have argued that sufficiency principles are vulnerable to important objections. This article seeks to clarify the main claims of sufficiency principles and to examine whether they have something distinctive and plausible to offer. The article argues that sufficiency principles must claim that we have weighty reasons to secure enough and that once enough is secured the nature of our reasons to secure further benefits shifts. Having characterized sufficientarianism in this way, the article shows that the main objections to the view can be avoided; that we can examine the plausibility of sufficiency principles by appealing to certain reasons that support a shift; and that we should be optimistic about the prospects for sufficientarianism because many of our strongest reasons seem to be of this sort. This shift, I claim, is the overlooked grain of truth in sufficientarianism.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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2 For this criticism, see Arneson, Richard, ‘Distributive Ethics and Basic Capability Equality: “Good Enough” is Not Good Enough’, Capabilities Equality: Basic Issues and Problems, ed. Kaufman, A. (London, 2005), pp. 1743Google Scholar, at 26–33; Casal, Paula, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, Ethics 117 (2007), pp. 296326CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 315–16; Roemer, John, ‘Eclectic Distributional Ethics’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics 3 (2004), pp. 267–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 279; Temkin, Larry, ‘Equality, Priority or What?’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 761–87Google Scholar, at 765.

3 For this criticism, see Arneson, ‘Good Enough is not Enough’, pp. 26–33; Casal, ‘Sufficiency is not Enough’, pp. 307–8, 311–12 and 315–16; Temkin, Larry, ‘Egalitarianism Defended’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 745–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 769–71. For a similarly worrying implication of this view see Widerquist, Karl, ‘How the Sufficiency Minimum Becomes a Social Maximum’, Utilitas 22 (2010), pp. 474480CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 For this criticism see Arneson, ‘Good Enough is not Enough’, pp. 26–32; Casal, ‘Sufficiency is not Enough’, pp. 312–14; Goodin, Robert, ‘Egalitarianism, Fetishistic and Otherwise’, Ethics 98 (1987), pp. 44–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 49; Hooker, Brad, ‘Fairness, Needs and Desert’, The Legacy of H. L. A. Hart: Legal, Political and Moral Philosophy, ed. Colburn, B., Grant, C., Hatzistavrou, A. and Kramer, M. (Oxford, 2008), pp. 181–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 189–91; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), pp. 278–9Google Scholar. Sufficientarians have responded by either denying that vagueness is a problem, for example, see Benbaji, Yitzhak, ‘Sufficiency or Priority?’, European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2006), pp. 327–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 340; Page, Ed, ‘Justice between Generations: Investigating a Sufficientarian Approach’, Journal of Global Ethics 1 (2007), pp. 320CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 15–16, or by arguing that this problem applies equally to prioritarian principles, see Shepley Orr, ‘Sufficiency of Resources and Political Morality’, unpublished (2005), pp. 20–3, available: <>.

5 For advocacy of headcount sufficientarianism see Dorsey, Dale, ‘Toward a Theory of the Basic Minimum’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics 7 (2008), pp. 423–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 432–7; Page, Ed, Climate Change, Justice and Future Generations (Cheltenham, 2006), pp. 8595CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Page, ‘Investigating a Sufficientarian Approach’, p. 11; Roemer, ‘Eclectic Distributional Ethics’, pp. 273–4 and 278–9; Frankfurt, Harry, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, Ethics 98 (1987), pp. 2143CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 31.

6 Dale Dorsey calls these cases of ‘upward transfers’ see Dorsey, ‘Basic Minimum’, p. 432.

7 For this objection to versions of sufficientarianism see Arneson, Richard, ‘Perfectionism and Politics’, Ethics 111 (2000), pp. 3763CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 56–7; Arneson, ‘Good Enough is not Enough’, pp. 26–33; Brighouse, Harry and Swift, Adam, ‘Educational Equality versus Educational Adequacy: A Critique of Anderson and Satz’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 26 (2009), pp. 117–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 125–6; Casal, ‘Sufficiency is Not Enough’, pp. 315–16; Roemer, ‘Eclectic Distributional Ethics’, p. 279; Temkin, ‘Equality, Priority or What?’, p. 65.

8 For advocacy of this version of sufficientarianism see Crisp, Roger, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 745–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Crisp, Roger, ‘Egalitarianism and Compassion’, Ethics 114 (2003), pp. 119–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’; Huseby, Robert, ‘Sufficiency: Restated and Defended’, The Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (2010), pp. 178–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See Casal, ‘Sufficiency is Not Enough’, p. 298: ‘The negative thesis denies the relevance of certain additional distributive requirements.’

10 Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for stressing that this distinction should be made clear.

11 See Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 37: ‘In the doctrine of sufficiency the use of the notion “enough” pertains to meeting a standard rather than to reaching a limit. To say that a person has enough money means that he is content, or that it is reasonable for him to be content, with having no more money than he has. And to say this is, in turn, to say something like the following: the person does not (or cannot reasonably) regard whatever (if anything) is unsatisfying or distressing about his life as due to his having too little money.’

12 See Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’.

13 See Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, pp. 298–9: ‘The positive thesis stresses the importance of people living above a certain threshold, free from deprivation.’

14 A number of such principles are cited by Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, pp. 321–3. See also Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, pp. 755–63.

15 See Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority and Compassion’, p. 757: ‘The notion of compassion, then, used in conjunction with the notion of an impartial spectator, may provide us with the materials for an account of distribution which allows us to give priority to those who are worse-off when, and only when, those worse-off are themselves badly off.’

16 See Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, p. 298: ‘The negative thesis denies the relevance of certain additional distributive requirements.’

17 See Parfit, Derek, ‘Equality or Priority?’, Lindley Lecture, reprinted in The Ideal of Equality, ed. Williams, A. and Clayton, M. (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 81125Google Scholar, at 101: ‘The Priority view: Benefiting people matters more the worse-off these people are.’

18 For a definition of leximin see Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p. 72Google Scholar: ‘in a basic structure with n relevant representatives, first maximize the welfare of the worst off representative man; second, for equal welfare of the worst-off representative, maximize the welfare of the second worst-off representative man, and so on until the last case which is, for equal welfare of all preceding n-1 representatives, maximize the welfare of the best-off representative man. We may think of this as the lexical difference principle.’

19 For an example of combining equality with sufficiency, see Williams, Andrew, ‘Liberty, Equality, and Property’, The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory, ed. Dryzek, J., Honig, B. and Philips, A. (Oxford, 2006), pp. 488506Google Scholar, at 501–3.

20 For discussions of uniform-prioritarianism see Iwao Hirose, ‘Reconsidering the Value of Equality’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy (2009), pp. 301–12; Holtug, Nils, ‘Prioritarianism’, Egalitarianism: New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality, ed. Holtug, N. and Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (Oxford, 2006), pp. 125155Google Scholar, at 134; Peterson, Martin and Hansson, Sven Ove, ‘Equality and Priority’, Utilitas 17 (2005), pp. 299309CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 301; Weirlich, Paul, ‘Utility Tempered with Equality’, Nous 17 (1983), pp. 431–3Google Scholar. For criticism of prioritarians who do not provide a principled explanation of the discount rate for benefits, see Williams, Andrew, ‘Equality, Ambition, and Insurance’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 78 (2004), pp. 131–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 135.

21 See Brown, Campbell, ‘Priority or Sufficiency . . . or Both?’, Economics and Philosophy 24 (2005), pp. 199220CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, pp. 321–3, and Williams, ‘Liberty, Equality and Property’, pp. 501–3.

23 See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 53, for the difference principle.

24 I am very grateful to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I explain these features in this way.

25 Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1988), pp. 235–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 109–12.

27 For the non-satiable understanding of distributive equality, see Thomas Christiano, ‘A Foundation for Egalitarianism’, Egalitarianism, ed. Holtug and Lippert-Rasmussen, pp. 41–82, at 73.

28 The egalitarian ideal of a society of people who can stand as equals is expressed in Anderson, Elizabeth, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109 (1999), pp. 287337CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The egalitarian ideal of a society in which each person is treated with equal concern is discussed in Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue (London, 2002)Google Scholar.

29 O'Neill, Martin, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?, Philosophy and Public Affairs 36 (2008), pp. 119–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), pp. 130–1Google Scholar; Scanlon, T. M., ‘The Diversity of Objections to Inequality’, Lindley Lecture (1997), reprinted in his The Difficulty of Tolerance: Essays in Political Philosophy (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 202–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness’, pp. 130–1; Scanlon, ‘The Diversity of Objections’, p. 46.

31 O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, pp. 121–2.

32 For a statement of the principle of fair equality of opportunity, see Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, pp. 42–4.

33 Sen, Amartya, ‘Poor Relatively Speaking’, Oxford Economic Papers 35 (1983), pp. 159–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 I would like to thank Douglas Bamford, Gary Banham, Chris Clarke, Matthew Clayton, Dean Machin, Brian McElwee, Emily McTernan, Ed Page, Fabienne Peter, Matthew Rendall, Andrew Williams, and Chris Woodard, for their helpful comments on drafts of the article. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for their many detailed and helpful comments. Finally, I would like to thank audiences at the Warwick University Philosophy Graduate Research Day, a seminar at the Centre for Ethics, Law and Public Affairs, University of Warwick and the 9th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy, to whom earlier versions of this article were presented.