Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Does Welfare have Diminishing Marginal Value?

Many people are drawn to the Prioritarian view that "Benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are." (Parfit 1997, 213)  Importantly, this is not just the (utilitarian-compatible) idea that many goods have diminishing marginal value, so that better-off people are likely to benefit less than worse-off people from a certain amount of material goods.  Even after accounting for all that, the idea goes, the interests of the worse-off just matter more; we should even give a lesser benefit to the worst off rather than a (genuinely) slightly greater benefit to someone who is already well-off.

This view always struck me as deeply misguided. By effectively attributing diminishing marginal value to welfare itself, you can end up implying that even considering just a single individual, it might be "better" to do what is worse for him (e.g. giving him a smaller benefit at a time when his quality of life is lower, rather than a greater benefit at a different time).

But there is a closely related view that is more theoretically cogent.  Rather than attributing diminishing marginal value to welfare itself, you attribute it to the basic goods that contribute to one's welfare (happiness, etc.).  This goes beyond the familiar idea that material resources have diminishing instrumental value, say for making you happy.  We are now introducing a kind of non-instrumental diminishing value, by saying that happiness itself makes more of a difference to your welfare the less of it you have.



This view has similar practical implications to prioritarianism.  If given a fixed amount of a basic good to distribute (a fixed-size happiness boost, say), it is better, all else equal, to give it to the worst off individual.  But it has significant theoretical benefits.  Rather than abandoning moral equality and saying that equal-or-lesser interests of the worst off just matter more, we maintain the equal consideration of interests and instead affirm that we are able to make more of a difference to the interests of the worse off (even with an equally sized happiness boost).  We prioritize helping them, not because they matter more, but because we are able to benefit them more.

And, of course, we avoid the near-incoherence of attributing diminishing marginal value to welfare itself.

Can you see any reason to prefer the traditional prioritarian view (on which welfare has DMV) over this utilitarian-compatible competitor (on which welfare-contributors have DMV)?  Has anyone formulated this latter view before?

10 comments:

  1. [Paul Kelleher send in the following comment:]

    Harsanyi's aggregation theorem combined with individual risk-aversion with respect to lifetime well-being together entail prioritarianism. I agree that this can have some counter-intuitive implications (especially in one-person cases like the one you adduce here), but I think John Broome is correct that the anti-prioritarian must explain where the Harsany-based argument goes wrong (see his entry on the Oxford Handbook of Value Theory). Broome thinks it goes wrong by assuming a notion of individual welfare functions that are not constructed using the axioms of decision theory. He thinks such a notion cannot be found, because (he thinks) decision theory offers the only plausible route to cardinalization. If I follow you, your proposal requires that we have cardinalized notions of the "welfare-contributors", as distinct from a cardinalized notion of welfare itself. --- In any case, perhaps being mindful of where someone like Broome might object to your proposal will help illuminate a route forward to developing/defending it further.

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  2. If I recall correctly, Brad Hooker endorses the view that you like in “The Elements of Well-Being,” and Tom Hurka endorses it in his popular book, *The Best Things in Life* (though he might say that none of the claims in that book that are seemingly about welfare are really about welfare).

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    1. Ah, thanks Eden! Do you recall whether either of them discuss the view in relation to prioritarianism (i.e. explicitly making the case that this is a better way to accommodate apparently prioritarian intuitions)?

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    2. No, I don't remember their making that point. But it's been a while since I've read those pieces.

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  3. I completely agree that this view is much better than prioritarianism. I do wonder though whether this view is really incompatible with utilitarianism. One thing that utilitarians are happy with is the idea that e.g. pleasure might have diminishing marginal utility. But the way of explaining that would be to define welfare in terms of preference-satisfaction, and to say that preferences for pleasure might have the kind of shape that implies diminishing marginal utility. You suggest that utilitarians only allow for diminishing instrumental value. But this is misleading, because pleasure is here a final value (it is desired non-instrumentally). So why not just present this as a way that utilitarians can explain more of the intuitions that prioritarianis rely on?

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    1. Hi Daniel, yes, absolutely, I suggest in the final paragraph that this is a "utilitarian-compatible" competitor to prioritarianism. I earlier suggested that it goes beyond the "familiar" way of appealing to diminishing marginal utility, but I didn't mean to imply that this further move is in any way incompatible with utilitarianism.

      Glad to hear you like the view!

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  4. I don't quite understand how this even makes sense from a logical point of view. I mean in what sense are you even measuring benefiting more? Isn't saying doing X for A benefits A more than doing Y for B benefits B just a different way of saying that given the choice you should choose the first one?

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    1. To be clear I understand the suggestion you are trying to make but when I think about what I mean to say when I describe two increases in happiness to be by the same amount it feels to me like I'm just consulting my intuitions about total welfare. I mean that might not quite be right but it definitely doesn't feel like I have the kind of independent grip on all these concepts that would let me freely vary them like this.

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    2. Consider some episode of conscious pleasure. Suppose you could either give that experience to someone who has already had lots of good experiences, or to someone else who has had a sadder time of late. By stipulation, the conscious episode would be identical whoever receives it -- it would be the "same amount" of *pleasure*. (That's a purely descriptive matter of fact.) But it's an open question whether the sadder person would gain more intrinsic benefit from the experience. (That's a normative question about the relation between the recipient and the benefit.) And it's a yet further question whether it's just *more important* to favour sadder people, even with equally-sized benefits. (That's a normative question about the relation between us, as potential benefactors, and the recipient.) So I think it makes good sense to distinguish these concepts. And the normative and descriptive ones, at least, are surely independent.

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