Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Prioritarianism: A (Pluralist) Defense

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Prioritarianism: A (Pluralist) Defense

Article excerpt

PRIORITARIANISM is the distributive view that welfare gains matter more, morally, the worse off you are. (1) A common and intuitively compelling objection to prioritarianism is that it wrongly treats cases involving one person (intra-personal cases) like cases involving more than one person (inter-personal cases), when they should be treated differently. In a nutshell, the objection goes as follows. A person is allowed, when faced with an intrapersonal choice between someone else's possible futures, to reason prudentially when choosing on their behalf. (2) She is not required to give special moral weight to the future in which the person for whom she is choosing would be worse off. However, when choosing how to distribute goods between multiple people, prudential reasoning on behalf of the group is not justified, as the claim of the person who is worse off should matter more (call this the Moral Shift). Thus, prioritarianism, which as an aggregative, impersonal view is committed to treating intrapersonal and interpersonal trade-offs similarly, cannot explain the Moral Shift.

Opinion is divided among philosophers as to whether this objection is powerful enough to reject prioritarianism.3 In a 2009 article, Michael Otsuka and Alex Voorhoeve level a famous argument in favor of this proposition. (4) They claim that prioritarianism's inability to explain the Moral Shift means it ignores the unity of the individual, and hence should be rejected altogether. In this article, we show that their argument has a significant weakness, as its only answer to a standard prioritarian response is self-defeating. To explain briefly: a natural way in which the (pluralist) prioritarian can explain the Moral Shift is to appeal to the autonomy of the person being chosen for, as the prioritarian is choosing as the person would choose for herself. In order to preempt this, Otsuka and Voorhoeve assume the decision maker is a morally motivated stranger who knows (almost) nothing about the preferences and attitudes of the person in question. This assumption, we argue, makes the examples on which their argument relies incoherent, unless they rely on assumptions that most prioritarians would (we believe) find implausible. Thus, we argue that most prioritarians can both continue to appeal to autonomy to explain the Moral Shift and maintain their prioritarian commitments.

The article is structured as follows. First, we sketch the commitments of the prioritarian, and set out the objection to her view that we will be discussing. Next, we spell out the pluralist prioritarian's natural response to the Moral Shift--an appeal to the autonomy of the person being chosen for. We show that Otsuka and Voorhoeve can only head off this response, and so continue to press their objection, on the basis of two controversial assumptions: that welfare consists in a list of objective goods, and--if one takes an unorthodox but plausible view of risk aversion--that there is only a narrow range of rational risk aversions (or, analogously, that the prioritarian's weightings are extreme). These assumptions, we argue, significantly limit the scope of Otsuka and Voorhoeve's argument, and make it applicable for only a limited range of prioritarians. Along the way, we address possible responses on Otsuka and Voorhoeve's behalf, and show that they are unsuccessful.

1. PRIORITARIANISM

As mentioned, prioritarianism is the distributive view that welfare gains matter more, morally, the worse off you are; the prioritarian unit of moral value is priority-weighted welfare. Prioritarianism can take a variety of forms, depending on how steeply the moral weighting applied to a unit of welfare decreases as the person receiving the welfare becomes better off. One limiting case is utilitarianism, which is prioritarianism with a weighting of one (i.e., no matter how badly off you are, an additional unit of welfare matters equally). The other is something like a maximin principle, which is prioritarianism with an infinite weighting (i. …

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