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The Priority View Bites the Dust?

  • ANDREW WILLIAMS (a1)
Abstract

This article distinguishes between a telic and a deontic version of Derek Parfit's influential Priority View. Employing the distinction, it shows that the existence of variations in how intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts should be resolved fails to provide a compelling case in favour of relational egalitarianism and against all pure versions of the Priority View. In addition, the article argues that those variations are better understood as providing counterevidence to certain distribution-sensitive versions of consequentialism.

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1 Parfit Derek, ‘Equality or Priority?’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton Matthew and Williams Andrew (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 81125.

2 Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 106.

3 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 84.

4 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 101.

5 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 103.

6 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 103.

7 See, for example, Temkin Larry, Inequality (New York, 1993), ch. 9; ‘Equality Priority, and the Levelling down Objection’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Matthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 126–61; and ‘Egalitarianism Defended’, Ethics (2003), pp. 764–82.

8 For discussion of various paretian egalitarian principles, see Paula Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, Ethics (2007), pp. 296–326, esp. pp. 308–10.

9 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 (2009), pp. 171–99.

10 For further specification, see the Appendix to ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 198–9.

11 It is worth noting that the description ‘morally motivated stranger’ can apply to various distributors, including private agents moved by impartial beneficence in distributing resources they rightfully control as well as public agents, such as governments, officials and voters. As a result, it is not clear whether the convictions about how to resolve intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts that Otsuka and Voorhoeve affirm, or report from surveys, apply to all such agents or merely to private agents. If the Priority View applies to all such agents, as is often assumed, then this ambiguity may not matter to their critique of the View; the inability of the View to accommodate convictions about certain private agents would still diminish its plausibility. If the distributive principles that govern the conduct of private agents are distinct from those principles that govern the conduct of public agents, then the ambiguity does make it more difficult to draw from their paper positive egalitarian conclusions about political morality.

12 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 173.

13 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 174.

14 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 174–5.

15 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 177.

16 Otsuka and Voorhoeve mention Wlodek Rabinowicz, who first noted the divergence, and then Dennis McKerlie and David McCarthy. See ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 178, n. 16.

17 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 181.

18 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 179–80.

19 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 180. Although I leave this important issue aside it is worth noting the following grounds to doubt that the stranger has decisive reasons to intervene in order to eliminate the prospect of gain and the risk of loss. Suppose the stranger could either permanently eliminate the prospect of gain and the risk of loss or perhaps only temporarily eliminate it by enabling the two individuals to decide for themselves whether to risk exposure by unanimous choice against an equal background. If so, it seems there are weighty reasons for the stranger to choose the second more liberal option, at least assuming possible inequalities in outcome remain within an acceptable range and the two individuals have reasons to prefer facing the relevant decisions themselves rather than having others act on their behalf. Now suppose that enabling the individuals to decide is regrettably impossible but that the stranger knows that if the option had been available and she had taken it the individuals would then have unanimously chosen exposure to the prospect of gain and the risk of loss. If so, one does not need to be a libertarian to conclude, apparently contrary to Otsuka and Voorhoeve, that there are undefeated reasons against intervening to eliminate such exposure.

20 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 181–2.

21 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 185, italics added.

22 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 183.

23 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 183.

24 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 183–4.

25 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 183–4.

26 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 101.

27 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 101. For later discussion of one deontic form of the Priority View, see Parfit Derek, On What Matters, vol. 2 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 201–8. On p. 201 Parfit examines the ‘Contractualist Priority View: People have stronger moral claims, and stronger grounds to reject some moral principle, the worse off those people are’.

28 See Scheffler Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism (Oxford, 1982), pp. 31–2; Arneson Richard, ‘Justice is not Equality’, Ratio 21 (2008), pp. 371–91; and Hooker Brad, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2003), pp. 5565.

29 See Nagel Thomas, ‘Equality’, Mortal Questions (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 5565, reprinted in The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton and Williams; and Nagel Thomas, Equality and Partiality (New York, 1991), pp. 6080.

30 Equality and Partiality, p. 66, n. 16.

31 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 108, italics added.

32 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 184, n. 20.

33 ‘Equality’, p. 64 and cf. p. 74, and p. 78, italics added.

34 See Rawls John, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p. 4.

35 See Nagel Thomas, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, 1970), p. 134.

36 See The Possibility of Altruism, p. 134, and n. 1 for Nagel's indebtedness to Rawls.

37 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 188–90.

38 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 104, italics added.

39 See ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 189, where Otsuka and Voorhoeve also note that Parfit makes a similar remark on p. 108 of ‘Equality or Priority?’ when discussing Nagel's ‘two child case’. Thus, Parfit claims that according to Nagel's view ‘it would be just as urgent to benefit the handicapped child even if he had no sibling who was better off’. For Parfit's description of the case, see the opening sentences of his Lindley Lecture: ‘In his article “Equality”, Nagel imagines that he has two children, one healthy and happy, the other suffering from a painful handicap. He could either move to a city where the second child could receive special treatment, or move to a suburb where the first child would flourish’ (p. 81). It is also worth noting that Otsuka and Voorhoeve omit mentioning that Parfit almost immediately concludes from his remark on p. 108 that Nagel is ‘one writer who sometimes uses the language of equality, when he is really appealing to the Priority View’ (italics added), thereby casting further doubt on their relational egalitarian reading of Nagel's view.

40 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, p. 176.

41 ‘Equality or Priority?’, p. 104.

42 Note that this feature of the Restricted View explains why my objection is untouched by the reply Otsuka and Voorhoeve make to the claim that the Priority View applies only to ‘moral choices’ understood as choices involving ‘interpersonal conflict’ (p. 188). Their reply plausibly notes that the Priority View condemns waste regardless of the presence of interpersonal conflict, and so cannot be limited to moral choices, thus construed. The Restricted View can accommodate this observation since it recognizes that we have a general claim on each other's beneficence, and so for this reason the View condemns waste; to favour the less disadvantaged it simply adds that in situations of interpersonal conflict the weight of any such claim decreases as the potential recipient's absolute level of advantage increases.

43 See Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 523 and ‘Justifiability to Each Person’, Ratio 16 (2003), pp. 368–39. For a contractualist response to the Non-Identity Problem, see Kumar Rahul, ‘Who Can Be Wronged?’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (2003), pp. 99118.

44 ‘Why it Matters that Some are Worse Off than Others’, pp. 183–4.

45 This article has benefited greatly from written comments by Paula Casal, Paul Bou-Habib, Matthew Clayton, Brad Hooker, Peter Vallentyne and two anonymous referees. For very helpful exchanges, I am also grateful to Richard Arneson, Keith Hyams, Marisa Iglesias, Serena Olsaretti, Martin O'Neill, Michael Otsuka, Arvi Pakaslahti, Derek Parfit, Thomas Porter, Matthew Rendall, Alex Voorhoeve, and audiences in Lisbon and Manchester.

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