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Prioritarianism is supposed to be a theory of the overall good that captures the common intuition of ‘priority to the worse off’. But it is difficult to give precise content to the prioritarian claim. Over the past few decades, prioritarians have increasingly responded to this ‘content problem’ by formulating prioritarianism not in terms of an alleged primitive notion of quantity of well-being, but instead in terms of von Neumann–Morgenstern utility. The resulting two forms of prioritarianism (respectively, ‘Primitivist’ and ‘Technical’ prioritarianism) are not mere variants on a theme, but are entirely distinct theories, amenable to different motivating arguments and open to different objections. This article argues that the basic intuition of ‘priority to the worse off’ provides no support for Technical Prioritarianism: qua attempt to capture that intuition, the turn to von Neumann–Morgenstern utility is a retrograde step.

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Derek Parfit , ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio 10 (1997), pp. 202–21, at 213

John Harsanyi , ‘Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility’, Journal of Political Economy 63 (1955), pp. 309–21

Amartya Sen , ‘Welfare Inequalities and Rawlsian Axiomatics’, Theory and Decision 7 (1976), pp. 243–62, at 249–50

Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve , ‘Why It Matters That Some Are Worse Off Than Others: An Argument Against the Priority View’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 37 (2009), pp. 171–99

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Joshua Greene and Jonathan Baron , ‘Intuitions about Declining Marginal Utility’, Journal of Behavioural Decision Making 14 (2001), pp. 243–55

Peter A. Diamond , ‘Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility: Comment’, Journal of Political Economy 75 (1967), pp. 765–6

Larry G. Epstein and Uzi Segal , ‘Quadratic Social Welfare Functions’, Journal of Political Economy 100 (1992), pp. 691712

Marc Fleurbaey , ‘Assessing Risky Social Situations’, Journal of Political Economy 118 (2010), pp. 649–80

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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