Note: Thanks to Gustaf Arrhenius, Matthew Adler, Ralf Bader, Kara Dreher, Marc Fleurbaey, Jimmy Goodrich, Ben Holguín, Nils Holtug, Adam Kern, Kacper Kowalczyk, Dillon Liu, Mike Otsuka, Dean Spears, and Alex Voorhoeve. The paper has been presented in seminars at University of Copenhagen, Stockholm University, and Institute for Futures Studies, as well as at the Fourth PPE Society Meeting. We are grateful to the participants for the comments and suggestions


This paper presents a new kind of problem in the ethics of distribution. The problem takes the form of several “calibration dilemmas,” in which intuitively reasonable aversion to small-stakes inequalities requires leading theories of distribution to recommend intuitively unreasonable aversion to large-stakes inequalities—e.g., inequalities in which half the population would gain an arbitrarily large quantity of well-being or resources. We first lay out a series of such dilemmas for a family of broadly prioritarian theories. We then consider a widely endorsed family of egalitarian views and show that, despite avoiding the dilemmas for prioritarianism, they are subject to even more forceful calibration dilemmas. We then show how our results challenge common utilitarian accounts of the badness of inequalities in resources (e.g., wealth inequality). These dilemmas leave us with a few options, all of which we find unpalatable. We conclude by laying out these options and suggesting avenues for further research.


Leading contemporary theories in the ethics of distribution can be regarded as attempts to stake out a reasonable middle ground between two extremes.

On one extreme is the utilitarian principle of distribution, which evaluates distributions according to their total (or average) well-being. Many philosophers reject utilitarianism because it is insensitive to inequality in the distribution of well-being. Many of us believe, contrary to utilitarianism, that we ought to give some priority to those who are worse off than others.

On the other extreme is the leximin (short for “lexicographic maximin”) rule, inspired by Rawls’s (1971) difference principle. Leximin assigns absolute priority to the very worst off. It says to choose, between any two distributions, the one that is better for the worst-off person whose welfare differs between those distributions.

Whereas utilitarianism seems to assign too little (i.e., zero) priority to the worse off, leximin seems to assign too much. For example, consider a large population in which everyone is quite poorly off. Suppose that we can either benefit one member of this population by an arbitrarily small amount, or benefit any number of people better off than her by an arbitrarily large amount. It seems at least permissible to benefit the many. But leximin would require us to benefit the one, even if the many are quite poorly off too.

Most contemporary theorists in the ethics of distribution agree that leximin is implausibly extreme. Yet they have said surprisingly little about how much priority we should give, instead of absolute priority, to the worse off.[1] Similarly, they have given no precise guidance for how to, say, balance the interests of the very worst off against the interests of the second-worst off.

For example, prioritarians believe that benefiting a person matters more the worse off that person is. When introducing this view, Derek Parfit (1991: 20) says that prioritarianism “does not tell us how much priority we should give to those who are worse off. On this view, benefits to the worse off could be morally outweighed by sufficient benefits to the better off. To decide what would be sufficient, we must simply use our judgement.”

Fair enough. It is hard to see how else a prioritarian could decide when benefits to the better off would outweigh benefits to the worse off without, as Parfit says, simply using her judgment.

Similar remarks apply to contemporary versions of egalitarianism. Egalitarians believe that it is bad, because unfair, for some to be worse off than others (some add: through no fault of their own). But, as egalitarians are quick to clarify, they don’t care only about inequality. Egalitarians don’t judge a situation in which everyone is equally miserable to be better than a situation in which everyone is happy but unequally so. Many egalitarians care both about decreasing inequality and about increasing total well-being (see Barry 1989: 79; Temkin 2003; Persson 2006). But, Parfit (1991: 5) suggests, “if we give weight to both equality and utility [i.e., well-being], we have no principled way to assess their relative importance. To defend a particular decision, we can only claim that it seems right.”

Again, fair enough. It is hard to see how else an egalitarian could make decisions that involve tradeoffs between equality and total well-being, without simply using her judgment.

This does not mean, however, that prioritarians and egalitarians can consistently endorse any combination of distributive judgments about all cases. On theories of both kinds, our judgments about some tradeoffs commit us to judgments about other tradeoffs. These commitments, we argue, pose a problem for contemporary theories of distributive ethics that are supposed to give some priority, but not extreme priority, to those who are worse off than others.

Our argument proceeds through a series of “calibration dilemmas,” in which seemingly reasonable aversion to inequalities involving small differences in well-being commits prioritarianism and the most commonly defended version of egalitarianism to seemingly unreasonable aversion to inequalities involving larger differences in well-being— e.g., inequalities from which half the population would gain an arbitrarily large quantity of well-being. (We will soon see some examples.) These implications are not as extreme as leximin’s. But, we believe, they are nonetheless implausible.

We start by characterizing a general class of views that includes prioritarianism, as typically understood, as a special case. We lay out a series of calibration dilemmas for these views. We then consider a widely endorsed family of egalitarian views and show that views in this family avoid the dilemmas for prioritarians. However, they are subject to no less forceful calibration dilemmas of their own, and other versions of egalitarianism fare no better. We then consider the implications of our calibration dilemmas for utilitarianism. Though we take our results to provide some support for the utilitarian’s insensitivity to inequality in the distribution of well-being, they also pose a problem for prominent utilitarian explanations of the badness of inequalities in the distribution of resources (e.g., wealth inequality).

Those who do not want to interpret our calibration dilemmas as support for utilitarianism have a few options. For instance, prioritarians and egalitarians could respond to these dilemmas by giving up aversion to inequality when small quantities of well-being are at stake. An alternative response would be to simply accept the extreme implications of aversion to small-scale inequality. In the concluding section we consider these responses and suggest avenues for further research.

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  1. Notable exceptions include Tungodden and Vallentyne (2005) and Fleurbaey, Tungodden, and Vallentyne (2009), whose results are in a similar spirit to ours. ↩︎


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