Seminar: Hilary Greaves, November 27th, 2013, CPNSS-LSE (London, United Kingdom)

On November 27th, Hilary Greaves (University of Oxford) is invited in the research seminar of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences (CPNSS) of the London School of Economics (from 5.30 to 7.00 pm, LAK.2.06, 2nd floor of the Lakatos Building, Portugal Street). The title of his paper is Antiprioritarianism.

Abstract: Prioritarianism is supposed to be a theory of the overall good that captures the common intuition of “priority to the worse off”. Over the past few decades, there has been a largely unannounced slide, from formulating prioritarianism in terms of an alleged primitive notion of quantity of well-being, to formulating it in terms of von Neumann-Morgenstern utility. The resulting two forms of prioritarianism (which I call, respectively, “Primitivist” and “Technical” prioritarianism) are not mere variants on a theme, but are entirely distinct theories, amenable to different motivating arguments and open to different objections. This talk argues, against an apparently sweeping current consensus, that the basic intuition of “priority to the worse off” provides no support for Technical Prioritarianism. The argument proceeds via the observation that insofar as an argument can be constructed leading from the intuition of priority to Technical Prioritarianism, an analogous and equally compelling intuition (one of caution in the face of risk) leads, via a precisely analogous line of argument, to a theory that is in a clear sense “opposite” to Technical Prioritarianism. (This is the “anti-prioritarianism” that gives this talk its title.) I conclude that those whose only motivation in this vicinity is that of the basic intuition of priority should be either Primitivist Prioritarians, or utilitarians (in the modern, minimal sense of the latter). A corollary is that much of the recent discussion of prioritarianism in the literature – in particular, the numerous attempts to defend Technical Prioritarianism’s manner of violating the Ex Ante Pareto principle in the name of the priority intuition – is misguided.

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