Philosophy Compass 9/11 (2014): 756–768, 10.1111/phc3.12175
Bowling Green State University
Prioritarianism can usefully be seen as a corrective to both egalitarianism and utilitarianism. It allegedly
corrects for egalitarianism insofar as it tends toward equality but seems immune to the Leveling Down
Objection. It allegedly corrects for utilitarianism insofar as it emphasizes improving peoples’ lives but is
distribution-sensitive, favoring benefiting those who are worse off over those who are better off, other
things equal. The best way to understand the view and assess its prospects is to see whether on closer
examination it can indeed avoid the pitfalls of the two more traditional views it might replace. What
emerges from such a closer examination is that prioritarianism must be very carefully specified to avoid
the Leveling Down Objection. More significantly, to clearly avoid problems associated with utilitarian-
ism, prioritarianism must be formulated in deontic rather than telic terms. It is not clear, however, that
such a deontic prioritarianism has any advantages over deontic egalitarianism.
Prioritarianism, or the Priority View, was first introduced explicitly by Derek Parfit.
inally defined it as follows: ‘Benefitting people matters more the worse off these people are [in
absolute terms]’ (Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority?’ 101).
This is inexact, and thus can be interpreted
in a variety of ways, most importantly because there are different ways to interpret or
operationalize how benefitting those who are worse off ‘matters more’. The most favored
interpretation is that the moral significance of marginal benefits is indexed to the level of welfare
of the individual to whom they accrue. In other words, increases in welfare are worth less, in
moral terms, the better off the recipient is in absolute terms. For any given person, then, each
additional unit of welfare is morally less significant – counts less, in moral terms.
to have this interpretation in mind when he suggests that while utilitarians believe that resources
have declining marginal utility, prioritarians believe, in addition, that ‘utility has diminishing
marginal moral importance’ (Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority’ 105).
Prioritarianism can usefully be seen as a corrective to both egalitarianism and utilitarianism.
Egalitarianism comes in many forms, of course. But the most straightforward form, which has
come to be known as telic (short for teleological) egalitarianism, is the view that it is bad in itself
if some people are worse off than others.
This form of egalitarianism, it has been pointed out,
has a troubling consequence: If it is in itself bad that some people are worse off than others, then
in at least one respect (in terms of equality), an initially unequal situation can be improved by
simply making the better-off as badly off as the worse-off – by leveling down the better-off
to the level of the worse-off, as in Fig. 1, where (following a well-established convention)
the width of each column represents the size of the population while the height represents
how well each person in that population is faring in that state of affairs.
Following Parfit, this objection has come to be known as the Leveling Down Objection.
The most common way to support the Leveling Down Objection is to insist that it is absurd
to hold that one situation can be better (worse) than another in any respect if no one is better
Prioritarianism seems to be a corrective for (telic) egalitarianism because it (i) tends
toward equality in virtue of its prioritizing benefitting (and avoiding burdening) those who are
© 2014 The Author(s)
Philosophy Compass © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd