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Why Poverty Matters Most: Towards a Humanitarian Theory of Social Justice


Sufficientarians claim that what matters most is that people have enough. I develop and defend a revised sufficientarian conception of justice. I claim that it furnishes the best specification of a general humanitarian ideal of social justice: our main moral concern should be helping those who are badly off in absolute terms. Rival humanitarian views such as egalitarianism, prioritarianism and the difference principle face serious objections from which sufficientarianism is exempt. Moreover, a revised conception of sufficientarianism can meet the most prominent undefeated challenges to the view. I contend that prevailing versions of sufficientarianism have not satisfactorily defined the sufficiency threshold, and so I offer an original specification of the threshold. I also address perhaps the most common objection to sufficientarianism, namely that sufficientarian regimes will channel all of society's resources towards elevating people to the sufficiency threshold regardless of the gains foregone by those above the threshold.

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1 See Crisp, Roger, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 745–63. Others reject lexical priority, e.g. Nussbaum, Martha, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, 2006), p. 71.

2 See, e.g. Arneson, Richard, ‘Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare’, Philosophical Studies 55 (1989), pp. 229–41; Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, 2002).

3 On the levelling-down objection, see Parfit, Derek, ‘Equality or Priority?’, The Ideal of Equality, ed. Clayton, Matthew and Williams, Andrew (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 81125; Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York, 1974), p. 229; Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986), p. 235.

4 See Anderson, Elizabeth, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, Ethics 109 (1999), pp. 287337; Casal, Paula, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, Ethics 117 (2007), pp. 296326, at 322. Richard Arneson argues that there are both practical and moral reasons against eliminating consideration of responsibility entirely from one's theory of justice. Richard Arneson, BEARS Symposium on Elizabeth Anderson's ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ <> (1999). I agree that there may be good reasons not to institute unconditional entitlements to sufficiency, if only for the worrisome incentive effects such a policy would be likely to produce.

5 See, e.g. Parfit, , ‘Equality and Priority’, Ratio 10 (1997), pp. 202–21.

6 Arneson, Richard, ‘Cracked Foundations of Liberal Equality’, Dworkin and His Critics, ed. Burley, Justine (Oxford, 2004), pp. 7998, at 90.

7 On the idea that this is a counterintuitive implication, see Nagel, Thomas, Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 1991), p. 70; Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 755.

8 Arneson, Richard, ‘Distributive Justice and Basic Capability Equality: “Good Enough” is Not Good Enough’, Capabilities Equality: Basic Issues and Problems, ed. Kaufman, Alexander (New York, 2005), pp. 1743, at 30.

9 Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 754.

10 See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, 1999).

11 Perhaps the canonical defence of sufficientarianism is Frankfurt, Harry, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, Ethics 98 (1987), pp. 2143. For more recent defences, see Benbaji, Yitzhak, ‘The Doctrine of Sufficiency: A Defense’, Utilitas 17 (2005), pp. 310–32, and ‘Sufficiency or Priority?’, European Journal of Philosophy 14 (2006), pp. 327–48; Crisp, , ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, and ‘Egalitarianism and Compassion’, Ethics 114 (2003), pp. 119126; Huseby, Robert, ‘Sufficiency: Restated and Defended’, Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (2010), pp. 178–97; Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice. Additional discussion can be found in Anderson, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’; Raz, The Morality of Freedom, pp. 217–40; Temkin, Larry, ‘Egalitarianism Defended’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 764–82; Waldron, Jeremy, ‘John Rawls and the Social Minimum’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 3 (1986), pp. 2133.

12 Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 31.

13 Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 758.

14 Arneson, ‘Distributive Justice’, p. 26.

15 Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 762.

16 Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p. 182.

17 Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 37.

18 Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p. 71.

19 Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, p. 312.

20 Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, p. 313; see also Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 278–9; Arneson, ‘Distributive Justice’, p. 28.

21 See, e.g. Arneson, Richard, ‘Why Justice Requires Transfers to Offset Income and Wealth Inequalities’, Social Philosophy and Policy 19 (2002), pp. 172200, at 183.

22 Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 37.

23 Huseby, ‘Sufficiency’, p. 181. The maximal sufficiency threshold contrasts with the minimal sufficiency threshold, which is equated with the means to subsistence.

24 Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, p. 299.

25 See, for example, Kavka, Gregory, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton, 1986), p. 197; Hayek, F. A., Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 3 (Chicago, 1979), p. 55.

26 I will elide, as far as possible, intramural disputes about whether sufficiency ought to be specified in terms of resources or welfare, although sufficientarians tend to focus on the distribution of resources rather than welfare. I also find the sorts of considerations raised by people such as Ronald Dworkin on behalf of understanding social justice in terms of resources compelling. See Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue, chs. 1 and 2.

27 Arneson, ‘Distributive Justice’, p. 28.

28 Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, p. 325

29 Ronald Inglehart, ‘Globalization and Postmodern Values’, The Washington Quarterly 23 (2000), pp. 215–28, at 219.

30 Diener, Ed, Sandvik, Ed, Seidlitz, Larry, and Diener, Marissa, ‘The Relationship Between Income and Subjective Well-Being: Relative Or Absolute?’, Social Indicators Research 28 (1993), pp. 195223, at 204.

31 Veenhoven, Ruut, ‘Is Happiness Relative?’, Social Indicators Research 24 (1991), pp. 134, at 10.

32 Layard, Richard, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (New York, 2005), pp. 33–4.

33 One proposed explanation for this phenomenon is that income acquired by individuals beneath certain income levels enables them to meet previously unmet needs and thus substantially advances their subjective well-being. See, for instance, Veenhoven, ‘Is Happiness Relative?’.

34 Estimates of the precise point of diminishing marginal returns to income vary. See Veenhoven, , ‘Apparent Quality-of-Life In Nations: How Long and Happy People Live’, Social Indicators Research 71 (2005), pp. 6186, at 73; Frey, Bruno and Stutzer, Alois, Happiness and Economics: How the Economy and Institutions Affect Well-Being (Princeton, 2002), p. 83; Layard, Happiness, pp. 33–4; Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, ‘Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox’, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. Working Papers (2008), <>.

35 Nussbaum and Rawls both seem to rely, at least tacitly, on the notion of diminishing marginal returns to income in the development of their theories of distributive justice, although they do not assign it the same theoretical role that I have. See Nussbaum, Martha, ‘Aristotelian Social Democracy’, Liberalism and the Good, ed. Douglass, R. Bruce, Mara, Gerald and Richardson, Henry (New York and London, 1990), pp. 203–52, at 210–11; Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 134. The equation of the sufficiency threshold with the point of diminishing marginal returns to income also seems to align with the intuitions animating Frankfurt's formulation of sufficiency. See Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 37.

36 Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 758.

37 For a discussion of such worries, see Nussbaum, Martha, ‘Adaptive Preferences and Women's Options’, Economics and Philosophy 17 (2001), pp. 6788.

38 See Stevenson and Wolfers, ‘Economic Growth’.

39 See Sandvik, Ed, Diener, Ed, and Seidlitz, Larry, ‘Subjective Well-Being: The Convergence and Stability of Self-Report and Non-Self-Report Measures’, Journal of Personality 61 (1993), pp. 317–42.

40 Arneson, ‘Distributive Justice’, p. 30.

41 Casal suggests that it is appropriate to expect the super-rich to do more for the worse off than the rich and alleges that sufficientarianism cannot accommodate this judgement. Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is not Enough’, p. 311. This judgement, however, would not clearly disfavour sufficientarianism or favour prioritarianism – it seems best explained simply by general considerations of the diminishing marginal utility of wealth.

42 See Huseby, ‘Sufficiency’, p. 187.

43 Peter Singer, ‘A Response to Martha Nussbaum’, <> (2002). Singer's objection is directed at Nussbaum's theory in particular. As noted, Nussbaum's recent interpretation rejects lexical priority. Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice, p. 71. For similar accounts of the objection, see also Arneson, ‘Why Justice Requires Transfers’, p. 188; Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, p. 299. For a variation, see Widerquist, Karl, ‘How the Sufficiency Minimum Becomes a Social Maximum’, Utilitas 22 (2010), pp. 474–80. It is worth noting that a rejection of sufficiency as a fundamental principle is compatible with upholding the achievement of sufficiency as an important policy aim.

44 Rawls, John, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Kelly, Erin (Cambridge, 2001), p. 50.

45 See Frankfurt, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’, p. 30, and Crisp, ‘Equality, Priority, and Compassion’, p. 755, respectively.

46 See Arneson, ‘Why Justice Requires Transfers’, p. 187, and Casal, ‘Why Sufficiency is Not Enough’, p. 311, respectively.

47 I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

48 See Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice; Anderson, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’.

49 We've seen egalitarians respond to the levelling-down objection by allowing that other values can outweigh equality. Prioritarianism must also sometimes give way to other principles to block the tyranny of aggregation. And the difference principle, like sufficientarianism, faces the tyranny of disaggregation objection and may need to similarly relax lexical priority if the counterexample is successful.

50 Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for suggesting this general line of response.

51 See, e.g. Hare, R. M., ‘Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 2338; Goodin, Robert, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, 1995), p. 6; Hardin, Russell, Morality within the Limits of Reason (Chicago, 1988), pp. 189–90.

52 Woodward, James and Allman, John, ‘Moral Intuition: Its Neural Substrates and Normative Significance’, Journal of Physiology – Paris 101 (2007), pp. 179202, at 193.

53 For a review of further examples and evidence for this claim, see Woodward and Allman, ‘Moral Intuition’.

54 See, e.g. Hare, ‘Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism’; Hardin, Morality within the Limits of Reason; and Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy.

55 See Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, Bernard, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge, 1998), p. 98.

56 Woodward and Allman, ‘Moral Intuition’, p. 193.

57 See, e.g. Frohlich, Norman and Oppenheimer, Joe, Choosing Justice: An Experimental Approach to Ethical Theory (Berkeley, 1992), p. 59.

58 Woodward and Allman, ‘Moral Intuition’, p. 192.

59 The problem may not be simply that the strange examples are unlikely, but that they tend to stipulate away features that are typically present in our experience and relevant to our moral judgements.

60 Goodin suggests that we should be open to the possibility that counterintuitive implications are acceptable for exceptional cases. See Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy, p. 6.

61 Regarding judgements of the appropriateness of moral principles for contexts significantly different from those in which we have moral experience, Thomas Pogge suggests similarly that perhaps we ought to ‘deny that we are in a position to make such judgments, one way or the other’. Pogge, , ‘Cohen to the Rescue!’, Ratio 21 (2008), pp. 454–75, at 467.

62 Thanks are due to Julia Annas, Nathan Ballantyne, Thomas Christiano, Jerry Gaus, David Schmidtz and two anonymous referees for this journal.

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