An underrated idea: the priority view
[This post discusses the Derek Parfit paper ‘Equality or Priority?’, and honestly, you would benefit more from reading that paper than this post if you want to really get into the weeds of the priority view. That being said, the paper is fairly long, and perhaps slightly unfriendly to those not engaged with much political philosophy, so read on if you don’t have the time to digest a ~40 page political philosophy paper. Further, this post assumes you are somewhat familiar with utilitarianism. If totally uninterested in political/moral philosophy, do not bother reading.]
The philosopher Thomas Nagel has a well-known test to check whether a person is someone who, in some situations, values equality over utility. Suppose that you have two children - one, a gifted teenage boy who is excelling at school, the other a disabled boy who goes into the hospital for routine checks and medical interventions. As a parent, you are now making a decision whether you ought to live in the suburbs or the city. The suburbs has benefits for your gifted son - the levels of the crime in the city are fairly high, the cost of living is higher and so your home would be smaller, and so on. The city has one huge benefit for your disabled son - it would be much easier to get to the hospital often, and he would receive more and better medical treatment.
There is also a catch in the hypothetical - let’s assume that the utility gain for the gifted son from living in the suburbs would be larger than the utility gain for the disabled son from living in the city. A pure utilitarian, then, must choose the suburbs. Nagel’s view is this: if you say that you would live in the city for the sake of your disabled son, despite it being the case that moving to the city creates more utility in total, you are not a utilitarian (at least in all circumstances), but rather an egalitarian. You value the equality of the boys more than you do maximising the overall levels of well-being.
This seems like a pretty good argument - if, like me, you think there is some appeal to choosing the city, you are deciding to forego maximising utility in favour of something else. But what is that ‘something else’? Nagel claims that you have chosen to maximise equality - you favour the wellbeing of the disabled boy rather than the gifted boy because doing so produces some degree of equality. But Parfit’s counterargument here is that your preference is contingent on increasing the utility of the disabled boy, rather than a pure egalitarian view.
Let’s introduce another scenario: Imagine that the gifted boy has a total utility of 80, and the disabled boy has a total utility of 40. If you took some action to reduce the utility of the gifted boy (say, removing access to any books, television shows, and so on) that led to his utility decreasing to 60, you have made a step towards equality, even though you have not made the disabled boy better off at all. A pure egalitarian is forced to say that this action is a good one, because it has made the two boys more equal. Someone who values equality to an extent, but is not a pure egalitarian, is forced to say that while this action might be bad on net, there is at least some moral value to increasing equality that is outweighed by the negative utility outcome from this action.
So, what other explanations do we have to why someone would prefer, in the first hypothetical, moving to the city to moving to the suburbs? Parfit’s answer is that we might value priority, which is prioritising the well-being of the worst off. The point being made here is that we do not assign any moral value to decreasing the well-being of those who are better off (there is no moral justification for removing the gifted boy’s access to books and so on), but we do assign more moral value to increasing the utility of those who start from a lower base. The implication is that a utility gain of 5 can have more moral significance than a utility gain of 10, if the utility gain of 5 would be going to someone with a much lower base utility than the utility gain of 10 would be going to.
Let’s use another intuitive example: suppose you have a friend you know is going through a serious depressive episode, and another friend who is thriving. The first friend asks if you are willing to go to dinner with him, and the second friend proposes going to the concert of his favourite band who are in town for one night only. The catch from the city/suburb example also applies here - the thriving friend will gain more utility from the concert than the depressed friend will from getting dinner. You might still opt to go to dinner with the depressed friend in this instance, because you might consider a small amount of happiness for someone who is depressed to have more moral value than a larger amount of happiness for someone who is already fairly happy.
The priority view has a lot going for it over pure utilitarianism - to me at least, it aligns more with my instincts about morality. In reality, I would prioritise the depressed friend over the thriving friend, or the disabled boy over the gifted boy, even if I knew that it would not result in more utility in total. Secondly, it (at least somewhat) deals with a famous objection to utilitarianism - the utility monster. The utility monster is one of Robert Nozick’s brilliant thought experiments that supposes that one person receives much more utility from each unit of resource they consume than anyone else does. For a utilitarian, it follows that every resource ought to be directed towards the utility monster in order to maximise total utility. With the priority view, this situation can often be avoided, because we assign more moral weight to increasing the utility of the worst off - we now have a moral justification to avoid directing more resources to the utility monster. It is fairly surprising to me that the priority view (often called ‘prioritarianism’) hasn’t really caught on outside of moral philosophy, even though I think that lots of people intuitively take this view, and it deals with some of the objections towards pure utilitarianism.