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Another Defence of the Priority View


This article discusses the relation between prioritarian and egalitarian principles, whether and why we need to appeal to both kinds of principle, how prioritarians can answer various objections, especially those put forward by Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve, the moral difference between cases in which our acts could affect only one person or two or more people, veil of ignorance contractualism and utilitarianism, what prioritarians should claim about cases in which the effects of our acts are uncertain, the relative moral importance of actual and expectable benefits, whether people should sometimes be given various chances of receiving benefits, and principles that appeal to competing claims.

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1 For an excellent discussion of this objection, see Holtug, Nils, Persons, Interests, and Justice (Oxford, 2010), ch. 7.

2 See Temkin, Larry's classic Inequality (Oxford, 1993).

3 Nagel, Thomas, Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 1991), p. 11.

4 Rabinowicz, Wlodek, ‘Prioritarianism for Prospects’, Utilitas 14 (2002), pp. 221, and ‘Prioritarianism and Uncertainty’, Exploring Practical Philosophy: From Action to Values, ed. Dan Egonsson, Jonas Josefsson, Björn Petersson, and Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen (Burlington, Vt., 2001), pp. 139–65. See also McCarthy, David, ‘Utilitarianism and Prioritarianism II’, Economics and Philosophy 24 (2008), pp. 133, whose claims I hope to discuss elsewhere.

5 For other objections to this principle, see Fleurbaey, Marc and Voorhoeve, Alex, ‘Decide as You Would with Full Information: An Argument against Ex Ante Pareto’, Health Inequality: Ethics and Measurement, ed. Eyal, Nir, Hurs, Samia, Norheim, Ole and Wikler, Dan (Oxford, forthcoming).

6 If they were at various intermediate levels, that would not affect our reasoning.

7 ‘Why It Matters That Some Are Worse Off Than Others: An Argument against the Priority View’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 37 (2009), pp. 171–99, sect. 1.

8 I discuss this version of contractualism in my On What Matters (Oxford, 2011), sect. 51.

9 See, for example, Scanlon, 's ‘Contractualism and Utilitarianism’, Moral Discourse and Practice, ed. Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan and Railton, Peter (Oxford, 1997), pp. 267–86.

10 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 175.

11 For a fuller discussion, see Thomas Porter's contribution to this issue.

12 In his ‘Prioritarianism and the Separateness of Persons’, in this issue, sects. VII and VIII.

13 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, in this issue, n. 29.

14 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, sects. V, VII and VIII.

15 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 177.

16 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, in this issue, start of sect. IV.

17 The Priority View is unsound, Otsuka and Voorhoeve also suggest, because this view ignores the difference between cases in which different people's interests do or don't conflict. In considering this suggestion, we can return to Case Three, which is like Two with respect to the ways in which our acts would affect Tom and Ted, but which differs from Two because these people's interests do not conflict. In Case Two, both of our possible acts would be better for one of these people and worse for the other. In Case Three, both of our acts would either be better for both people, or worse for both. But this difference does not, I have argued, support the view that we ought to do X in Two but not in Three. In both cases, we could either

do X, which would benefit Tom and Ted if they are very badly off,


do Y, which would give Tom and Ted a slightly greater benefit if, as is equally likely, they are very well off.

From Tom's and Ted's points of view, there is no difference between these cases. Egalitarians might claim that our reason to do X is slightly stronger in Two than in Three, since it is only in Two that doing X would reduce rather than increase inequality between Tom and Ted. But in both cases X would reduce rather than increase the inequality between Tom and Ted and most other people. In most versions of Three, this slight weakening of our egalitarian reason to do X would not shift the balance of reasons from favouring X to favouring Y. Like Prioritarians, most Egalitarians would believe that we ought to do X in both Two and Three.

18 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, pp. 182–3. In his contribution to this issue, Otsuka similarly writes that, when he discusses similar cases, he is considering the interests of the people whose well-being we can affect ‘in isolation from the interests of other actual people’.

19 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 179.

20 Personal communication.

21 Personal communication.

22 Personal communication.

23 Personal communication.

24 For a discussion of such versions of the Priority View, see McKerlie, Dennis, ‘Justice Between the Young and the Old’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 30 (2002), pp. 152–77.

25 For a fuller discussion of these questions, by which I have been greatly helped, see Martin O'Neill's contribution to this issue.

26 ‘Prioritarianism for Prospects’, p. 16.

27 Nothing turns on the figures here. My claims below would also apply to other versions of the Priority View, which give either more or less priority to benefits that come to people who are worse off.

28 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 181.

29 They write, for example, that on the Priority View, expectable benefits to someone who is worse off have ‘a higher expected moral value’ (p. 178), and that ‘outcomes rather than prospects are the carriers of value’ (p. 195); and they contrast the Priority View with Telic Egalitarianism.

30 It might be objected that, on my earlier description of the Telic Priority View, this view not only claims that we have a stronger reason to benefit people who are worse off, but also claims that, if other things are equal, we ought to act in this way. But this second claim is implied by the claim that we have such a stronger reason.

31 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, in this issue, near the end of sect. III.

32 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 190.

33 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, in this issue, near the end of sect. III.

34 Otsuka and Voorhoeve assume that, in my ‘Equality or Priority?’, I was describing and defending what they call the Pure Priority View, which claims to be the only moral principle that we need. But when I claimed to be discussing what I called the ‘pure version of the Priority View’, I defined this version as a view which did not include, among our stronger reasons to benefit people who are worse off, the claim that inequality is in itself bad. Though I remarked that the Priority View could be regarded as the only principle we need, I was not discussing only such a monistic view. When I introduced the Priority View, my note 30 claimed that versions of this view had been held by various earlier writers, all of whom are moral pluralists, who accept other principles.

35 See Voorhoeve and Fleurbaey's defence of similar claims in their contribution to this issue.

36 See, for example, Broome, John, ‘Fairness’, Ethics out of Economics (Cambridge, 1993), pp. 111–22; Kamm, Frances, Morality, Mortality, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1993), ch. 7; and Sager, Larry and Kornhauser, Lewis, ‘Just Lotteries’, Social Science Information 27 (1988), pp. 483516.

37 This reasoning may seem egalitarian, since it appeals to the fact that, if we did X rather than Z, Jill would be much worse off than Jack. But this reasoning is not egalitarian. On this reasoning, we ought to give Jill her expectable benefit of twenty years, not because that would reduce the inequality between Jill's level of well-being and Jack's level, but because by living to only 40 Jill would be at a lower absolute level. Our reason to give Jill this benefit is not made stronger by the fact that other people are better off than Jill.

38 In Otsuka's and Voorhoeve's words, this view ‘cannot countenance any such shift’ (‘Why It Matters’, p. 180).

39 For a fuller discussion of this subject, see Voorhoeve and Fleurbaey's contribution in this issue.

40 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 185.

41 Quoted in Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, pp. 176–7.

42 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, pp. 183–4.

43 In his ‘Prioritarianism’, in this issue, near the end of sect. V.

44 Personal communication.

45 See also my remarks about the Contractualist Priority View in On What Matters, vol. 2 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 201–8.

46 Otsuka and Voorhoeve, ‘Why It Matters’, p. 177.

47 In writing this article, I have been greatly helped by Gustaf Arrhenius, Stuart Armstrong, Greg Bognar, John Broome, Roger Crisp, Marc Fleurbaey, Sven Ove Hansson, Nils Holtug, David McCarthy, Dennis McKerlie, Martin O'Neill, Toby Ord, Michael Otsuka, Ingmar Persson, Thomas Porter, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Simon Rippon, Saul Smilansky, Bertil Tungodden, Peter Vallentyne, Alex Voorhoeve, and Andrew Williams.

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