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Prioritarianism or the priority view is a view within ethics and political philosophy that holds that the goodness of an outcome is a function of overall well-being across all individuals with extra weight given to worse-off individuals. Prioritarianism thus resembles utilitarianism. Indeed, like utilitarianism, prioritarianism is a form of aggregative consequentialism; however, it differs from utilitarianism in that it does not rank outcomes solely on the basis of overall well-being.
The term "prioritarianism" was coined by moral philosopher Larry Temkin in an effort to explicate the theory's non-egalitarian form. Richard Arneson, a proponent of the view, offers the following precise formulation:
Prioritarianism holds that the moral value of achieving a benefit for an individual (or avoiding a loss) is greater, the greater the size of the benefit as measured by a well-being scale, and greater, the lower the person's level of well-being over the course of her life apart from receipt of this benefit.
Like utilitarians, prioritarians believe we ought to maximize moral value or goodness, with the proviso that the latter consists in more than just overall well-being. Prioritarianism says that benefits to the worse off matter more than benefits to the better off.
Distinction from utilitarianism
To further sharpen the difference between utilitarianism and prioritarianism, imagine a two-person society: its only members are Jim and Pam. Jim has an extremely high level of well-being, is rich, and lives a blissed-out existence. Pam, by contrast, has an extremely low level of well-being, is in extreme poverty, living a hellish existence. Now imagine that we have some free resources (say, $10,000) that we may distribute to the members of this society as we see fit. Under normal circumstances, due to the diminishing marginal utility of money, the $10,000 will generate more well-being for Pam than it will for Jim.
Thus, under normal circumstances, a utilitarian would recommend giving the resources to Pam. However, imagine that Jim, for whatever reason, although already filthy rich and very well-off, would gain just as much well-being by receiving the $10,000 as would Pam. Now, since it makes no difference in terms of overall well-being who gets the $10,000, utilitarians would say it makes no difference at all who gets the $10,000. Prioritarians, by contrast, would say that it is better to benefit Pam, the worse off individual.
Advantages of prioritarianism
Prioritarianism does not merely serve as a "tie-breaker" (as in the case above), but it can go against overall utility. Imagine choosing between two outcomes: In outcome 1, Jim's well-being level is 110 (blissful); Pam's is -73 (hellish); overall well-being is 37. In outcome 2, Jim's well-being level is 23; Pam's well-being level is 13; overall well-being is 36. Prioritarians would say that outcome 2 is better or more desirable than outcome 1 despite being lower than outcome 1 in terms of overall well-being. Bringing Pam up by 86 is weightier than bringing Jim down by 87. If we could move from a society described by outcome 1 to one described by outcome 2, we ought to. Prioritarianism is arguably more consistent with commonsense moral thinking than utilitarianism when it comes to these kinds of cases, especially because of the prioritarian's emphasis on compassion.
It is also arguably more consistent with common sense than radical forms of egalitarianism that only value equality. Such a view might say that if the only way to achieve equality is by bringing Jim down from 110 to -73, then we ought to do this. Prioritarianism does not accord any intrinsic value to equality of well-being across individuals, and would not regard a move toward a more equal distribution of well-being as better if the worse off did not benefit. See Derek Parfit's seminal paper Equality and Priority for further discussion.
In addition to having potential advantages over utilitarianism and radical egalitarianism (as noted above), prioritarianism also avoids some putatively embarrassing implications of a related view, the maximin principle (also note Rawls's difference principle). The maximin principle ranks outcomes solely according to the well-being of the worst-off member of a society. It can thus be viewed as an extreme version of prioritarianism. Imagine choosing between two outcomes: In outcome 1, Jim's well-being level is 1; Pam's well-being level is 100; Dwight's well-being level is 100 (one could add an indefinite number of people with indefinitely high well-being levels). In outcome 2, Jim's well-being level is 2; Pam's well-being level is 3; Dwight's well-being level is 3. Many of us would part ways with the maximin principle and judge that outcome 1 is better than outcome 2, despite the fact that the worst-off member (Jim) has a lower level of well-being in outcome 1. See John Harsanyi's critique of the maximin principle.
Objections to prioritarianism
Objections to prioritarianism include many of the standard objections that adhere to aggregative consequentialism, for instance, the Repugnant Conclusion and related objections based on the apparent implausibility of certain trade-offs (e.g., there is some very large number of mild headaches such that it would be worse to bring about these mild headaches than the protracted and intense torture of an innocent person). There are also objections to quantifying, measuring, or making interpersonal comparisons of well-being, that strike against most if not all forms of aggregative consequentialism, including prioritarianism.
Another objection to prioritarianism concerns how much weight should be given to the well-being of the worse off. There may be issues of arbitrariness or "sloppy intuitionism" lurking here—prioritarians are faced with the potentially awkward task of balancing overall well-being against priority. But note that any theory that leaves any room for judgment in particular cases is also susceptible to this kind of objection about sloppiness or arbitrariness. A prioritarian might claim that how much weight should be given to the well-being of the worse off is something to be worked out in reflective equilibrium, or that, while we cannot determine weights exactly, there is a range of weights that is acceptable or justifiable.
A utilitarian (or radical egalitarian) might also claim that their theory is more parsimonious than prioritarianism (which values well-being and priority). But a prioritarian might, in response, argue that even a putatively genuinely monistic utilitarianism like hedonistic utilitarianism is not fully mechanized (and perhaps not even genuinely monistic) as it still requires judgment, for instance when it comes to balancing various pleasures against various pains.
- Parfit, Derek. 'Equality and priority', Ratio, vol. 10, no. 3 (December, 1997), pp. 202-221.
- "Luck Egalitarianism and Prioritarianism," Ethics 110, No. 2 (January, 2000).
- Arneson, Richard, "Egalitarianism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Crisp, Roger. 'Equality, Priority, and Compassion', Ethics, 113, 2003, pp. 145-63.
- 'Equality and priority', Ratio, vol. 10, no. 3 (December, 1997), pp. 202-221.
- A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
- Harsanyi, J. C. (1975) Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls's Theory. American Political Science Review 69: 594–606.
- Ryberg, Jesper, Tännsjö, Torbjörn, Arrhenius, Gustaf, "The Repugnant Conclusion", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Norcross, Alastair.(1998) 'Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death can be Outweighed by Headaches'. Analysis: 152-158.
- On this last point, see W.D. Ross, Foundations of Ethics, p. 89