17
Jul
09

prioritarianism

In several past posts, I have discussed ways to measure inequality — to come up with a theory of inequality. This is because some people believe that inequality is bad in itself. According to these people, inequality is not bad because it makes us feel inferior or becuase it prevents us from participating in the political process of our country. No, egalitarians, believe that inequality is just bad, full stop.

My own view is that inequality is not intrinsically bad, but rather than argue for that position, I want to argue for a view that I think is what actually underlies many of our egalitarian judgments. Derek Parfit calls this the priority view. Simply put, the priority view accords more weight to the gains in someone’s utility the worse off they are. Standard utilitarianism believes that if I could benefit a well off person by ten or a badly off person by 9, I should benefit the well off person. The calculus is simple, a gain of 10 is better than a gain of 9.

Prioritarianism claims that the gain is not the only thing that matters, but also that the welfare of the person receiving the gain is important too. So, the prioritarian must come up with a multiplier (I’m going to skip over how to decide on a multiplier and how the multiplier might change in different situation). Pretend the multiplier is 2. If so, then the gains to the worse off person would be weighted, by a factor of two, more than the gains to the better off person. So, a gain of 18 would be more than a gain of 10. Thus, prioritarianism would recommend that we benefit the worse off person, even though doing so generates less total utility.

Here is one argument for prioritarianism. Originally, simple total utilitarianism argued that all utility should count equally. Since we are morally equal, gains to your welfare should count just as much as mine. Thus, 10 should trump 9. Anything less than equality would be a type of discrimination or prejudice. However, some people have are not able to get utility as easily as others. Someone with a sunny disposition finds joy in all sorts of things, but someone who is more glum will have more trouble finding utility. A simply utilitarian calculus would favor giving welfare to those people who are efficient welfare generators (they derive large amounts of welfare from a given deed or action). But this seems to be another case of discrimination. Why deny welfare to those who are less efficient at generating it? It seems that we should be more concerned about improving the lot of people who are inefficient generators of welfare, for precisely that reason; they have a hard time generating welfare.

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