Essentially Comparative Concepts

By Dancy, Jonathan | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Essentially Comparative Concepts


Dancy, Jonathan, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


IN HIS "RETHINKING THE Good" (1), Larry Temkin discusses the claim that equality is essentially comparative (EEC). The notion of the essentially comparative is characterized roughly as follows:

A principle (or moral idea) f, is essentially comparative if the
relevant and significant factors for comparing two alternatives
regarding  may vary depending on the alternatives being compared; and,
more specifically, f is essentially pairwise comparative if one must
directly compare two alternatives in order to determine their relative
ranking regarding f. (p. 304)

Temkin writes, in a section which concerns Parfit's Mere Addition Paradox:

   The advocate of EEC believes inequality is not objectionable
   when it is brought about by the mere addition of extra people all
   of whom have lives worth living and who affect no one else, and
   where the alternative is a situation not where those people are
   better off, but where they don't exist. (p. 304)

There is something odd about this. There seem to be two views being squashed into one. The first view is that inequality is not objectionable when it is caused or reached in a certain way; I am going to call this the "provenance view." The second is that a situation which contains inequality may be objectionable for that reason when compared with some alternatives and not when compared with others. I will call this "alternative complementarity." The former is not a remark about alternatives, but about the way in which the causal (and other?) antecedents of a situation can affect the question whether it is the worse for the presence of a certain feature. Both of these claims are holistic, and they may in one way or another go together, but they are not identical. They are made to seem closer than they are by starting from an example where situation B is reached from situation A, and the two alternatives are A and B. But this is a special case. The claim that equality is essentially comparative should say nothing officially about the question whether the causal (and other?) antecedents of a situation can affect whether it is the worse or not for the presence of a certain feature. Thoughts of this sort should only come in when considerations of causal antecedents or routes are involved in the construction of the relevant alternative--as they do with the Mere Addition Paradox.

Temkin makes two comments on EEC. First, he says that if it is true "there is no fact of the matter as to how good a situation really is regarding f, considered just by itself. How good or bad it is depends on the alternative with which it is compared." (ibid.) Second, he says that "there may be no fact of the matter as to how two situations compare considered 'purely' abstractly. One may need to know who their 'members' are or how they've come about." (ibid.) But the idea that this second comment goes with the first one in such a way that they are part and parcel of the same essentially comparative conception of inequality (in the light of which he says that if EEC is true, considerations of equality are going to be sensitive to considerations about identity) is a consequence of the illegitimate way in which he has earlier run together thoughts about alternatives and thoughts about provenance, or causal origins. It is not officially part of any thought about the comparative at all.

The next point is that Temkin takes himself to be expounding Parfit on these matters. But Parfit's view, at least at one crucial place, seems not to be as represented by Temkin. Parfit is discussing the Mere Addition Paradox.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In this paradox, A and B are two worlds. A contains fewer people than B does, but the quality of life of those in A is higher than that of those in B. A+ is reached by adding to A a separate world in which the average quality of life is much lower than that of those in A, though the lives concerned are still worth living. …

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