Monday, November 27, 2006

The Priority View: Some Thoughts

In a previous post I noted that I am not an egalitarian in the sense of what most contemporary analytic political philosophers take that term to denote. That is, I am not committed to the view that something (e.g. welfare, resources, etc.) ought to be distributed equally. Having said that, I do align myself with the side of the political spectrum (i.e. the left) that feels inclined to object to existing socio-economic inequalities and believes something should be done to address this unfairness.

So what is grounding these intuitions if it is not some variant of egalitarianism?

Perhaps it is prioritarianism or some commitment to the doctrine of sufficiency. But just to clarify things -- recall my comments on virtue theory-- I am not searching for some over-arching metric of distributive justice to hang my hat on. I have a pluralistic view on these issues. (recall this). Rather, I am interested in cases where appeals to a prioritarian principle might be more useful and attractive than appeals to rival distributive principles- like utilitarianism, egalitarianism or sufficiency.

I am now investing a good deal of thought into this issue as it has important consequences for my project on genetics and justice. In that book I am developing a pluralistic prioritarian account of genetic justice (see here). And I want to contrast that theory with a sufficitarian theory and the principle of a genetic decent minimum. So I need to clarify my thoughts on some of these issues and I hope this post will help me make sense of where I stand.

This term I have also been involved in a prioritarian reading group (with members of the CSSJ) which has been very helpful in helping me sift through some of these issues. Today we read Campbell Brown’s very insightful and interesting paper “Priority or Sufficiency… or Both?” which is published in the Oct 2005 issue of Economics and Philosophy. Brown’s article provides a useful synopsis of the different variants of prioritarianism and sufficientism (absolute vs weighted) and he makes a compelling case for a hybrid account called Threshold prioritarianism. This is a mixed view that: “in some cases it gives only weighted priority (i.e., where better off and worse off occupy the same side of the sufficiency threshold), and in other cases it gives absolute priority (where the better off and worse off occupy different sides of the sufficiency threshold) (Campbell p. 217).

I like the idea of the hybrid view as it provides one with a more flexible scheme than the absolute views do. However, I am hesitate to endorse the threshold priority view, in the context of genetic justice. Before I explain my hesitation to endorse it let me summarise what I think would be entailed by this view. (It is important to note that I am applying this view in a way different than that proposed by Campbell- he functions within a version of maximising consequentalism and welfarism).

What this hybrid view would maintain, when applied to a resourcist-metric that includes our genetic constitutions as part of the currency of justice, is that we should give a priority to those who are worse off. More specifically, those whose genetic constitutions place them below the threshold (lets say, for the sake of argument, “normal species functioning”) have an absolute priority over those who enjoy normal species functioning when it comes to making decisions about the different possible regulatory frameworks we could adopt for biomedical research. And when the decision is between benefiting members on the same side of the threshold—either victims of one disease vs another, or between different people whom all possess decent genetic constitutions- the worst off (defined in relative terms) have weighted priority. This means we consider how worse off they are, the number of people in this category and the magnitude of the benefits in question. I really like the idea of weighted priority but not absolute priority. I guess I am a weighted prioritarian across the board (in the context of genetic justice).

So when developing my critique of the sufficitarian position I could write a brief section outlining this hybrid position, which would suggest a bridging strategy between the two positions. Where they really differ, and this might be useful for me to also address, is when everyone is above the sufficiency threshold. The prioritarian can still be concerned with relative inequalities whereas the sufficitarian will not. And this could be important if one expands the concern to regulating genetic enhancements (though it goes too far into the realm of ideal theorising which I try to avoid in the book).

Furthermore, when it comes to making decisions concerning whom to benefit when the potential recipients are all below the threshold (e.g. victims of different genetic diseases) both the sufficiency and threshold priority view invoke weighted priority. So they probably end up endorsing the same policy decisions I want my across-the-board weighted policy to endorse. But I do think my position will have some virtues these other versions will lack.

Firstly, for my position, there are no circumstances where absolute priority ought to be conferred upon the least advantaged (even if they are below a threshold). That was a major shortcoming of Rawls’s principle of maximin. Secondly, the sufficiency position and the threshold view both have to grapple with the issue of how we define what the “minimum threshold” actually is. The fact that there is no hard and fast division between therapy and enhancement means that advocates of the sufficiency and threshold priority view will face difficulties that the pluralistic prioritarian can dispense with more readily. And I think this is another important benefit of that position.