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Priority, Preference and Value


This article seeks to defend prioritarianism against a pair of challenges from Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve. Otsuka and Voorhoeve first argue that prioritarianism makes implausible recommendations in one-person cases under conditions of risk, as it fails to allow that it is reasonable to act to maximize expected utility, rather than expected weighted benefits, in such cases. I show that, in response, prioritarians can either reject Otsuka and Voorhoeve's claim, by means of appealing to a distinction between personal and impersonal value, or alternatively they can harmlessly accommodate it, by means of appealing to the status of prioritarianism as a view about the moral value of outcomes, rather than as an account of all-things-considered reasonable action. Otsuka and Voorhoeve secondly claim that prioritarianism fails to explain a divergence in our considered moral judgement between one-person and many-person cases. I show that the prioritarian has two alternative, and independently plausible, lines of response to this charge, one more concessive and the other more unyielding. Hence, neither of Otsuka and Voorhoeve's challenges need seriously trouble the prioritarian.

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1 Otsuka Michael and Voorhoeve Alex, ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others: An Argument Against the Priority View’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37 (2009), pp. 169–97. Page numbers in the text refer to this article. For the formulation of the Priority View, as targeted by Otsuka and Voorhoeve, see Parfit Derek, ‘Equality or Priority?’, delivered as the Lindley Lecture at the University of Kansas, (Lawrence, KS, 1991), and reprinted in The Ideal of Equality, ed. Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 81–125. (References to Parfit's ‘Equality or Priority?’ are to this reprinting.)

2 Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 82.

3 Otsuka and Voorhoeve are careful to emphasize that the ‘morally motivated stranger’ ‘is a private individual rather than a state official’ (p. 171, fn. 4).

4 Otsuka and Voorhoeve's presentation of prioritarianism as a non-comparative view (see pp. 174–5) accords with the formulation of the view in Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’. As Parfit puts it, ‘on the Priority View, benefits to the worse off matter more, but that is only because these people are at a lower absolute level. It is irrelevant that these people are worse off than others’ (p. 104). Parfit makes the analogy with altitude: ‘People at higher altitudes find it harder to breathe. Is it because they are higher up than other people? In one sense, yes. But they would find it just as hard to breathe even if there were no other people who were lower down’ (p. 104).

5 Claims (C) and (D) reproduce the prioritarian claims (J) and (K), as characterized in O'Neill Martin, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 36 (2008), pp. 119–56, at 152.

6 In an extremely helpful personal communication of 10 April 2011, Derek Parfit writes: ‘This phrase [i.e. impersonal value] is often misunderstood, since people assume that it must refer to a kind of value that has nothing to do with people's well-being. Not so. The point is only that this kind of goodness is not goodness for one or more personal point of view. But one of two outcomes may be impersonally better because it is better for people.’ This usefully clarifies the sense in which I here intend the phrase ‘impersonal value’.

7 See Derek Parfit, ‘Another Defence of the Priority View’, in this issue.

8 Nagel Thomas, Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 1991), p. 12. See also Nagel Thomas, The View from Nowhere (Oxford, 1986), ch. 9, ‘Ethics’, pp. 164–88.

9 Nagel, Equality and Partiality, p. 14.

10 On representative and symbolic value, see Scanlon T. M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), pp. 251–3.

11 Otsuka and Voorhoeve consider that this second challenge constitutes ‘the crucial argumentative move’ (p. 178) of their article. Given that the second challenge is less fundamental than the first, this claim seems mistaken.

12 On the variety of ‘non-intrinsic egalitarian’ considerations, see O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, pp. 121–34. On the possibility of a complex distributive view that combines prioritarianism with the acknowledgement of egalitarian considerations, see O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, esp. § IV. ‘Equality or Priority, or Equality and Priority?’, pp. 152–5.

13 O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, p. 153.

14 See O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, pp. 152–5.

15 See Larry Temkin, ‘Equality, Priority and the Levelling Down Objection’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton and Williams, pp. 126–61, esp. at pp. 128–30. It is also relevant to point out that, although he describes a ‘pure’ version of the Priority View, Parfit does not explicitly endorse this pure version (as Otsuka and Voorhoeve themselves point out at p. 174, fn. 9).

16 See O'Neill, ‘What Should Egalitarians Believe?’, pp. 152–5. Given the implausibility of any ‘single principle’ distributive view, Parfit does not identify a particularly plausible possibility when he (nevertheless correctly) claims that ‘[t]he Priority View . . . can be held as a complete moral view’ (Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 103).

17 See Parfit's ‘Another Defence of the Priority View’, in this issue. On the characterization of Telic Egalitarianism, see Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’, esp. pp. 84–5.

18 I assume that Otsuka and Voorhoeve would not dispute this claim. Otherwise, their view would face the charge of itself being an implausibly ‘absolutist’ form of egalitarianism.

19 For helpful discussion of the issues treated in this article, or for comments on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Brad Hooker, Mary Leng, Thomas Porter, T. M. Scanlon, Jiewuh Song, Patrick Tomlin, Andrew Williams, and members of the audience at the ‘Problems with Priority?’ conference, organized by Thomas Porter, and hosted by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT) at the University of Manchester. I am particularly grateful to Derek Parfit for helpful and enlightening written comments on various versions, and especially also to Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve for generous, challenging, rigorous and rapid responses to a number of drafts. An early version of this article was written while I was a Visiting Hoover Fellow at the Université catholique de Louvain, and I thank the members of the Chaire Hoover d’éthique économique et sociale for their splendid hospitality.

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