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The good of those who are worse off matters more to the overall good than the good of those who are better off does. But being worse off than one’s fellows is not itself bad; nor is inequality itself bad; nor do differences in well-being matter more when well-being is lower in an absolute sense. Instead, the good of the relatively worse-off weighs more heavily in the overall good than the good of the relatively better-off does, in virtue of the fact that the former are relatively worse off. This paper articulates and defends the view just described.
Prioritarianism holds that improvements in someone's life (gains in well-being) are morally more valuable, the worse off the person would otherwise be. The doctrine is impartial, holding that a gain in one person's life counts exactly the same as an identical gain in the life of anyone equally well off. If we have some duty of beneficence to make the world better, prioritarianism specifies the content of the duty. Unlike the utilitarian, the prioritarian holds that we should not only seek to increase human well-being, but also distribute it fairly across persons, by tilting in favor of the worse off. A variant version adds that we should also give priority to the morally deserving – to saints over scoundrels. The view is a standard for right choice of individual actions and public policies, offering a distinctive alternative to utilitarianism (maximize total well-being), sufficiency (make everyone's condition good enough) and egalitarianism (make everyone's condition the same).
This chapter provides theoretical foundations for the Prioritarianism in Practice volume, by clarifying the features of prioritarian social welfare functions (SWFs). A prioritarian SWF sums up individuals’ well-being numbers plugged into a strictly increasing and strictly increasing transformation function. Prioritarian SWFs, like the utilitarian SWF, fall within the “generalized-utilitarian” class of SWFs. Generalized-utilitarian SWFs are additive and, hence, especially tractable for purposes of policy analysis. The chapter reviews the axiomatic properties of generalized-utilitarian SWFs and, specifically, of prioritarian SWFs. Prioritarianism satisfies the Pigou-Dalton axiom (a pure, gap-diminishing transfer of well-being from a better-off to a worse-off person is an ethical improvement), while utilitarianism does not. Pigou-Dalton is the axiomatic expression of the fact that a prioritarian SWF gives extra weight (priority) to well-being changes affecting worse-off individuals. The chapter also discusses the informational requirements of prioritarian SWFs (as regards interpersonal well-being comparisons). It reviews the various methodologies for applying a prioritarian SWF under uncertainty. And it describes the two main subfamilies of prioritarian SWFs, namely Atkinson and Kolm-Pollak SWFs.
This chapter compares utilitarianism and prioritarianism as alternative social welfare frameworks for evaluating climate policies. We review the main debates in the climate policy literature concerning the parameters of the utilitarian social welfare function, and discuss the analytical requirements and climate policy implications of prioritarianism both in deterministic and stochastic settings. We show that, given the specific characteristics of the climate issue and the assumptions routinely made in the climate literature, prioritarianism tends to support more lenient climate policies than undiscounted utilitarianism. This is based on the assumption of economic and social progress that makes the current generation worse-off than future generations. The presence of catastrophic climate outcomes that endanger the living conditions of future generations (or of the poorest individuals living in the future) relaxes this result.
Prioritarianism has been at the center of the formal approach to optimal tax theory since its modern starting point in Mirrlees (1971), but most theorists’ use of it is motivated by tractability rather than explicit normative reasoning. We characterize analytically and numerically the implications of a more explicit use of prioritarianism in optimal tax theory. We also examine prevailing tax policies and surveys on tax preferences to gauge the influence of prioritarianism in practice. We conclude that optimal policy is highly sensitive to many key modeling choices and parameter assumptions, and these choices interact in complicated ways, but that a substantial shift in policy results if the social objective moves from utilitarian to prioritarian. When looking at existing policy and preferences, we find only limited evidence of prioritarian reasoning. We conclude with suggestions on the future of prioritarianism in optimal tax theory.
Prioritarianism is an ethical theory that gives extra weight to the well-being of the worse off. In contrast, dominant policy-evaluation methodologies, such as benefit-cost analysis, cost-effectiveness analysis, and utilitarianism, ignore or downplay issues of fair distribution. Based on a research group founded by the editors, this important book is the first to show how prioritarianism can be used to assess governmental policies and evaluate societal conditions. This book uses prioritarianism as a methodology to evaluate governmental policy across a variety of policy domains: taxation, health policy, risk regulation, education, climate policy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also the first to demonstrate how prioritarianism improves on GDP as an indicator of a society's progress over time. Edited by two senior figures in the field with contributions from some of the world's leading economists, this volume bridges the gap from the theory of prioritarianism to its practical application.
Prioritarianism is a framework for ethical assessment that gives extra weight to the worse off. Unlike utilitarianism, which simply adds up well-being numbers, prioritarianism is sensitive to the distribution of well-being across the population of ethical concern. Prioritarianism in Practice examines the use of prioritarianism as a policy-evaluation methodology – across a range of policy domains, including taxation, health policy, risk regulation, climate change, education, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic –and as an indicator of a society’s condition (as contrasted with GDP). This chapter is an introductory chapter to the Prioritarianism in Practice volume. It surveys the intellectual roots of prioritarianism: in the philosophical literature, in welfare economics, and in scholarship about public health. And it provides brief summaries of each of the volume’s chapters.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to make difficult ethical choices, e.g., how to balance public health and socioeconomic activity and whom to prioritize in allocating vaccines or other scarce medical resources. We discuss the implications of benefit-cost analysis, utilitarianism, and prioritarianism in evaluating COVID-19-related policies. The relative regressivity of COVID-19 burdens and control policy costs determines whether increased sensitivity to distribution supports more or less aggressive control policies. Utilitarianism and prioritarianism, in that order, increasingly favor income redistribution mechanisms compared with benefit-cost analysis. The concern for the worse-off implies that prioritarianism is more likely than utilitarianism or benefit-cost analysis to target young and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals in the allocation of scarce vaccine doses.
This chapter explains the concepts of effectiveness and inclusion as key determinants of the successful performance of public services. Effectiveness is assessed in terms of social benefits (as a function of service “quality”) relative to costs, while the assessment of inclusion observes whether disadvantaged populations have access to quality services. Alternative methods to compare policy options are presented: utilitarianism (the creation of social value whereby benefits must surpass service costs) and social contractualism (when inclusion is taken as a priority), with critical implications for the choice of private versus public delivery.
A number of philosophers from Hobbes to Mill to Parfit have held some combination of the following views about the Golden Rule: (a) It is the cornerstone of morality across many if not all cultures. (b) It affirms the value of moral impartiality, and potentially the core idea of utilitarianism. (c) It is immune from evolutionary debunking, that is, there is no good naturalistic explanation for widespread acceptance of the Golden Rule, ergo the best explanation for its appearance in different traditions is that people have perceived the same non-natural moral truth. De Lazari-Radek and Singer employ all three of these claims in an argument meant to vindicate Sidgwick's ‘principle of universal benevolence’. I argue that the Golden Rule is the cornerstone of morality only in Christianity, it does not advocate moral impartiality, and there is a naturalistic explanation for why versions of the Golden Rule appear in different traditions.
This chapter offers an account of the inspiration for their active advocacy of political, social, and educational reform that three key figures of the British nineteenth century found in Plato: John Stuart Mill, George Grote (author of the classic three-volume study Plato of 1865), and Benjamin Jowett (whose translation of the entire Platonic corpus of 1871 was to be hugely influential). For both Mill and Grote, the importance of the probing Socratic method portrayed in the dialogues was paramount. Grote contrasted it with the tyranny exercised over the dissenting individual by the conformism of society at large: what he called King Nomos, with his eye particularly on the Great Speech Plato puts in Protagoras’s mouth in the Protagoras. To his mind, the Republic represented a sad betrayal of the Socratic spirit. It was Jowett who was chiefly responsible for making that dialogue’s moral idealism central to the education Oxford provided for the nation’s future elite, and whose endorsement of its radical proposals for equality for women in education and in politics is particularly notable.
Many proponents of behavioural public policy work within a broadly consequentialist framework. From this perspective, the ultimate aim of public policy is to maximise utility, happiness, welfare, the satisfaction of preferences, or similar; and the behavioural aspect of public policy aims to harness a knowledge of human psychology to make this maximisation more effective. In particular, behavioural insights may be crucial to help policy-makers ‘save us from ourselves’ by helping citizens avoid falling into non-rational choices, for example, through framing effects, failures of will-power, and so on. But an alternative reading of the psychological literature is that human thoughts and actions are not biased from a rational standard, but are simply systematically inconsistent. If so, then utility and similar notions are not well defined either for individuals or as an objective of public policy. I argue that a different, contractarian viewpoint is required: that the determination of public policy is continuous with the formation of agreements we make with each other at all scales, from momentary social interactions, to linguistic and social conventions, to collective decisions by groups and organisations. Behavioural factors do not over-ride, but can (among many other factors) inform, our collective decision-making process. The point of behavioural insights in public policy is primarily to inform and enrich public debate when deciding the rules by which we should like to live.
This chapter critically examines some of the popular theoretical justifications that have hitherto been postulated as explanations for the existence of intellectual property rights in general and patent rights in particular. The focus here is limited to the Lockean theory, the Hegelian theory, the utilitarian theory, and the regulatory theory. The chapter is structured into four sections. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 examine the Lockean and Hegelian theories, respectively, while Sections 2.4 and 2.5 focus on the utilitarian and regulatory theories, respectively. The chapter concludes with the view that the regulatory theory of intellectual property is the only theory that adopts a broad socio-centric approach. Thus, any developing country that seeks to preserve its patent policy space and secure access to medicines for its citizens should treat intellectual property law (including patent law) as an instrument that regulates the grant of exclusive rights to creators.
This paper presents a new kind of problem in the ethics of distribution. The problem takes the form of several ‘calibration dilemmas’, in which intuitively reasonable aversion to small-stakes inequalities requires leading theories of distribution to recommend intuitively unreasonable aversion to large-stakes inequalities. We first lay out a series of such dilemmas for prioritarian theories. We then consider a widely endorsed family of egalitarian views and show that they are subject to even more forceful calibration dilemmas than prioritarian theories. Finally, we show that our results challenge common utilitarian accounts of the badness of inequalities in resources.
On one understanding of the concept, publicity deems it impermissible for public officials to hide the reasons and moral theories that inform their policy choices. As just one example of this, publicity forbids the utilitarian from cloaking her policy recommendations in terms of a moral theory other than utilitarianism. While this might seem like a compelling requirement at first, its proponents have offered little argument for it, as defenders of utilitarianism have been quick to point out. To remedy this, I try to rehabilitate the blanket ban on false rationales demanded by this understanding of publicity, relying on the work of Bernard Williams (himself a fierce critic of esoteric utilitarianism). None of the arguments recovered from Williams successfully rule out secret rationales on the part of public officials. This understanding of publicity, I conclude, lacks compelling justification.
The empiricist legacy of John Locke developed in various directions in the British Romantic period, especially informing the movement known as theological utilitarianism, which taught ethics based on prudence and sought evidences for a benevolent, Christian God as designer of the world. This approach was challenged, however, above all by the idealism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who drew on Platonic and recent German sources. Further, newly translated Hindu texts influenced both metaphysical speculation and practical recommendations of a life of moderation and self-denial, including in the work of several female novelists in the period.
Barrell concludes by arguing that the utilitarians’ conscription into an ahistorical Enlightenment is doubly misconceived, first, because they opposed only the crudest forms of historical enquiry, and, second, because the eighteenth-century Enlightenments were neither systematically ahistorical nor neatly superseded by Romantic, organic, and historicist ideas. If, therefore, these new historical perspectives were both products and unruly offshoots of Enlightenment, then the utilitarians’ intellectual history assumes a more fluid shape. This new shape, Barrell suggests, may force us to rethink the utilitarians’ place within the intellectual history of the nineteenth century; the history of historical writing; and the history of philosophy.
James Mill’s dogmatic rhetoric in his essay ‘On Government’ (1820) and his rejection in the History of British India (1817) of ocular and narrowly empirical methods, when seen against the febrile political backdrop of the early 1830s, was a gift to utilitarianism’s Whig, Tory, and Romantic opponents. However, his defence in A Fragment on Mackintosh (1835) of Bentham’s jurisprudence and moral philosophy, when placed in the context of his other late writings, suggests a different intention. In both his historical and political writings, James Mill pursued the ‘real business of philosophy’ in which general principles illuminated social phenomena and laid bare the emptiness of Whig empiricism. Only the ‘speculative man’ could appreciate the past’s distinctness by separating general from special causes, and Mill’s indebtedness to Francis Bacon and David Hume is evident in this respect. His attractions to Benthamite utilitarianism and Scottish philosophical history were variously deepened and underpinned by his readings of Bacon and Hume, and those readings, Barrell suggests, may have been encouraged by Dugald Stewart at Edinburgh.
This chapter examines J. S. Mill’s writings on universal history, beginning with his reviews of Jules Michelet, François Guizot, and Henry Buckle, and ending with Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophetic account of democracy and Mill’s timely socialism. Barrell argues that we must take seriously the two historical perspectives from which Mill theorised politics: the first looked to the special causes which determined the timeliness or untimeliness of a given doctrine, reform, or phenomenon, while the latter looked to general causes and the region of ultimate aims. The first depended logically on the second. Any attempt to historicise the study of politics – by making laws relative to time and place, for example – must reckon with civilisation’s provisional trends. The debate surrounding Mill’s universalism and relativism, Barrell concludes, can be helpfully understood in these terms. While Mill’s argument is difficult to credulously follow, his intentions were clear: general and special circumstances always coexisted, and because they coexisted the past was both irreducibly distinct and uniform in its development. One consequence of this intellectual remapping might be to re-establish continuities between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in keeping with Mill’s self-professed eclecticism.
This chapter examines contemporary responses to utilitarianism as a political tradition, and, contrary to accepted wisdom, argues that Bentham’s theory of utility was circumstantially and thus historically relative. It asks why Bentham has been perceived as both an ahistorical and an antihistorical thinker, despite his engagement with the ‘Enlightened’ historicisms of the eighteenth century: with Montesquieu, Barrington, Kames, and others. While he denied that history possessed an independent value that could determine or even effectively structure politics, we should not mistake these arguments for an unwillingness to contemplate politics historically, or to make occasionally significant concessions to time and place. Bentham’s point, rather, was that historical truths were categorically distinct from philosophical ones, and that sciences historiques observed the past while sciences philosophiques appraised it. The chapter also addresses Bentham’s overlooked work as a ‘historiographer’ who performed recognisably historical tasks, including the examination of evidence and the passing of historical judgements