Derek Parfit (1997) – Equality and Priority

By Alex McLaughlin

This week’s REAPP session (10th Nov) offered the chance to discuss Derek Parfit’s classic paper, ‘Equality and Priority’. A special thanks is owed to Jamie Draper for introducing the paper and leading the discussion, but thanks also to everyone else who attended and who helped make the meeting such an interesting one.

Parfit’s paper is famous for introducing two different egalitarian positions. A ‘telic’ egalitarian is someone who thinks that inequality is intrinsically bad, whereas a ‘deontic’ egalitarian is only committed to objecting to an inequality where its presence can be traced to some form of wrongdoing. Though we could occupy many different positions about what counts as wrongdoing, the key point is that in order to condemn an inequality, the deontic egalitarian is in need of some further facts about its origin. This is not the case for the telic egalitarian, who sees the inequality as objectionable tout court. Despite the telic version’s possession, at least in Parfit’s view, of significant initial appeal, it is vulnerable to a ‘levelling down’ objection which might prompt us to abandon it entirely. Part of Pafit’s aim in the article is to suggest that there is a third view – the ‘priority’ view, which I will introduce below – that might offer sanctuary to our egalitarian intuitions and which is not threatened by this powerful objection.

Perhaps predictably, this ‘levelling down objection’ took up a large portion of the discussion. The core of the challenge is as follows. If equality is intrinsically good then there must be something positive about removing an inequality even in a case where this is achieved through bringing everyone down to the level of the worst off. In such a situation, some would be being made worse off and nobody better off, and yet the telic egalitarian is committed to saying that this state of affairs is in at least one way better. This might seem like an untenable conclusion. To draw out the force of the objection, Parfit imagines a case where a natural disaster destroys the resources of the better off and knocks them down to the level of the worst off. Is there really something to be said for this eventuality? It seems that the telic egalitarian would have to say yes. Notice, though, they would only have to agree that there was ‘something good’ about it; egalitarians tend to be pluralists and could therefore deny that equality is the only thing that matters. In the natural disaster case there would be egalitarian reasons telling in its favour, but there may be many other reasons that tell against it all things considered.

Jamie helpfully introduced an example of intergenerational levelling down. If it is the case that future generations will be better off than us, and if we were to hold a telic view about intergenerational equality, then it looks like we have egalitarian reasons to defer burdens into the future. Could we, for example, justify climate change mitigation on egalitarian grounds if we were sure that future generations would be significantly better off than us? At first glance this might appear difficult – it might be that the effects of climate change would reduce the inequality between the present and future. This could be a serious problem for the egalitarian view, given the consensus in the room that we should definitely mitigate climate change. There were, however, some arguments offered in defence of egalitarianism on this point. A family of telic egalitarian views under the banner of ‘luck egalitarianism’ allow for departures from equality when they can be tracked in a relevant way to an agent’s voluntary choice. Perhaps an argument could be made along these lines that we should bear the burdens of climate change, even though it would not reduce intergenerational equality. In other words, could it be that the current generation’s responsibility for causing climate change provides us with an egalitarian reason against deferring any burdens? In any case, it remains open to the pluralist egalitarian to respond that there are many non-egalitarian reasons for mitigating climate change. Of course, there is a great deal more to be said on these points, but if nothing else the discussion revealed the complexity of these sorts of cases.

Interestingly, some in the room were unconvinced that Parfit’s alternative to the telic view would completely allay these sorts of worries. The priority view holds that ‘[b]enefiting people matters more the worse off these people are’ (p.213). For the most part egalitarians will be happy to endorse this view as giving benefits to the worse off will have the effect of reducing inequality. But the advantage of this view, as Parfit sees it, is that by virtue of its being concerned with absolute rather than relative benefits, it seems untroubled by the levelling down objection. Returning to the intergenerational climate change case, however, some were confused as to whether prioritarianism would tell against us deferring the costs of climate change. Again, assuming future generations are to be richer than the present (it should be noted that this is a rather controversial assumption!) do the poorest of the current generation have claims to that part of our current expenditure that will be to the benefit of the future? Unsurprisingly we were unable to get much further than diagnosing some of the vexing problems of intergenerational justice, but thanks again to Jamie for relating them to this great paper and thanks again to everyone who attended.

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