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Still Lives for Headaches: A reply to Dorsey and Voorhoeve


There is no large number of very small bads that is worse than a small number of very large bads – or so, some maintain, it seems plausible to say. In this article, I criticize and reject two recently proposed vindications of the above intuition put forth by Dale Dorsey and Alex Voorhoeve. Dorsey advocates for a threshold marked by the interference with a person's global life projects: any bad that interferes with the satisfaction of a life project is worse than any number of bads that don't interfere with such a life project. Such thresholds, I argue, are broadly implausible. Voorhoeve gives a contractualist account for the irrelevance of minor bads. His account, I argue, does not, among other things, provide the right kind of reason in defence of the above intuition.

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1 ‘disvaluable’, for the purposes of this article, means ‘possessive of negative value’.

2 Broome, John, ‘No Argument against the Continuity of Value: Reply to Dorsey’, Utilitas 22.4 (2010), pp. 494–6, and Norcross, Alastair, ‘Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 26.2 (1997), pp. 135–67.

3 Voorhoeve, Alex, ‘How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?’, Ethics 125.1 (2014), pp. 6487; Dorsey, Dale, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, Utilitas 21.1 (2009), pp. 3658; Dorsey, Dale, ‘Preferences, Welfare, and the Status-quo Bias’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 88.3 (2010), pp. 535–54; Temkin, Larry S., ‘Intransitivity and the Mere Addition Paradox’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 16.2 (1987), pp. 138–87.

4 Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’.

5 Dorsay, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’.

6 Broome, ‘No Argument against the Continuity of Value: Reply to Dorsey’, p. 495.

7 A similar chain can be found in Temkin, Larry S., Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning (Oxford, 2011).

8 For instance, Dorsey says: ‘[b]oth headaches and deaths are intrinsically bad. But death is worse. In fact, saving someone from death is lexically prior in value to the relief of headaches. In other words, though headaches are bad, no amount of headaches equal the badness of death’ (Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, p. 39).

9 This problem is by no means a recent invention. In the influential 1978 article ‘Innumerate Ethics’ Derek Parfit notices that aggregating claims across people leads to a Lives for Headaches-type conclusion. See Parfit, Derek, ‘Innumerate Ethics’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 7.4 (1978), pp. 285301.

10 Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, p. 42.

11 Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, p. 46.

12 Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, p. 42.

13 Dorsey, ‘Headaches, Lives and Value’, p. 43.

14 Griffin, James, Well-being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance (Oxford, 1986).

15 Let ‘≺’ stand for ‘is worse than’.

16 Another case against aggregation is put forth by Brennan, Samantha, ‘Moral Lumps’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 9.3 (2006), pp. 249–63. Her basic thought is that certain minor bads don't ‘lump’ together to outweigh larger bads. However, unlike Voorhoeve, she does not give a rationale against lumping. Furthermore, in Dorsey's Chain enough instances of one bad do, at least prima facie, lump together to outweigh the next state in the chain. For these reasons I won't focus my discussion on her doubts concerning aggregation.

17 Voorhoeve, ‘How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?’, p. 66.

18 Voorhoeve, ‘How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?’, p. 74.

19 Voorhoeve, ‘How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?’, p. 73.

20 Parfit, ‘Innumerate Ethics’, p. 287. Similarly, Francis Kamm argues that harms that seem subjectively equivalent (e.g. my arm and your life) are not objectively equivalent (Kamm, Frances, ‘Précis of Morality, Mortality, vol. 1: Death and Whom to Save from It’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58.4 (1998), pp. 939–45). The resource allocator, however, is bound only by the objective considerations, not by the subjective considerations.

21 Note that the fact that the resource allocator is not bound by special self-concern-related reasons B would have is not to prescribe any particular way A should go about her decisions. All that is important right now is that B should realize that A is not bound by any reasons constituted by permissible self-concern.

22 Voorhoeve, ‘How Should We Aggregate Competing Claims?’, p. 74.

23 I am grateful to Samuel Kerstein, Peter Carruthers, Dan Moller, Evan Westra, Javiera Perez-Gomez and Aiden Woodcock for their comments on drafts of this article.

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