Philosophy Colloquium
Michael Otsuka
University College London
Prioritarianism and the Measure of Utility

Here I present a challenge to prioritarianism, which is, in Derek Parfit's words, the view that "we have stronger reasons to benefit people the worse off these people are." We have such reasons simply by virtue of the fact that a person's utility "has diminishing marginal moral importance". In discussions of prioritarianism, it is typically left unspecified what constitutes a greater, lesser, or equal improvement in a person's utility. I shall argue that this view cannot be assessed in such abstraction from an account of the measure of utility. In particular, prioritarianism cannot accommodate the widely accepted and normatively compelling measure of utility that is implied by the axioms of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's expected utility theory. Nor can it accommodate plausible and elegant generalizations of this theory that have been offered in response to challenges to von Neumann and Morgenstern. This is, I think, a theoretically interesting and unexpected source of difficulty for prioritarianism, which I shall explore in the paper.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
4:00pm

Skinner 1115