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Moral Uncertainty and Distributive Sufficiency

Abstract

According to the sufficiency principle, distributive justice requires that everyone have some sufficient level of resources or well-being, but inequalities above this threshold have no moral significance. This paper defends a version of the sufficiency principle as the appropriate response to moral uncertainty about distributive justice. Assuming that the appropriate response to moral uncertainty is to maximize expected choiceworthiness, and given a reasonable distribution of credence in some familiar views about distributive justice (including libertarianism, sufficientarianism, and egalitarianism), a version of the sufficiency principle strikes the optimal balance between the competing moral risks posed by implementing these views. In particular, it avoids the moral risk posed by views like Nozick’s libertarianism, which forbid redistributive taxation even for the sake of helping to provide for people’s basic needs: failing to do the latter, if it turns out that justice does require it, would be very morally wrong. This “uncertainty argument” has the advantage of minimizing reliance on controversial intuitions about distributive justice, helps to specifying a non-arbitrary threshold for sufficiency, and shows that the substantive moral implications of moral uncertainty are not limited to high-stakes applied ethics issues such as abortion and vegetarianism but instead extend to an issue at the heart of political philosophy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Early discussions include Lockhart (2000), Ross (2006), and Sepielli (2009). For a recent overview, see MacAskill et al. (2020).

  2. 2.

    See MacAskill (2019) for an overview of alleged moral implications of moral uncertainty, with discussion of complications arising from simultaneous uncertainty about multiple moral issues.

  3. 3.

    Some libertarian theories, such as Lomasky (1987) and Simmons (1992), include a version of the sufficiency principle and thus do not count as no-minimum views. Wendt (2019) describes and defends “sufficientarian libertarianism.” Other proponents of sufficientarianism include Frankfurt (1987, 1997), Anderson (1999), Crisp (2003), Benbaji (2005, 2006), Huseby (2010, 2020), Freiman (2012), Shields (2012, 2016), Axelsen and Nielsen (2015), Herlitz (2019), and Nielsen (2019a, b).

  4. 4.

    Shields (2012, 2016) rejects the negative thesis in favor of the “shift thesis,” according to which “[o]nce people have secured enough, there is a discontinuity in the rate of change of the marginal weight of our reasons to benefit them further” (2016, p. 30). I focus on the traditional conception of sufficientarianism (what Shields [2016, p. 22] calls “upper limit sufficientarianism”) that includes the negative thesis because it is a more distinctive view that continues to be endorsed by many sufficientarians (e.g., Nielsen 2017, Huseby 2020, pp. 219–220), and because the second-order sufficiency principle that I defend is intended to provide all-things-considered guidance (as far as distributive justice is concerned) about how to act in light of moral uncertainty about distributive justice—in particular, not to engage in redistribution to benefit those above a specified sufficiency threshold, just as the negative thesis prescribes—whereas the shift thesis provides no guidance without an accompanying account of our reasons of justice to benefit people, which is precisely what we are uncertain about when we are uncertain about which account of distributive justice is true. But see note 12.

  5. 5.

    Some sufficientarians (e.g., Benbaji 2005, 2006; Huseby 2010, 2020) respond by positing multiple sufficiency thresholds. As Huseby (2020, p. 213) notes, the sufficientarian’s positive and negative theses each identify a threshold as morally relevant, but they need not be taken to describe the same threshold. One might also posit multiple positive-thesis thresholds of decreasing moral priority, as Benbaji does. Multiple-threshold views often involve a fairly high negative-thesis threshold (e.g., Huseby’s [2010] appeal to “subjective contentment”), but my aim in this paper is to defend (as the appropriate response to moral uncertainty about distributive justice) a sufficiency principle with a low or moderate negative-thesis threshold. To simplify discussion, I will not consider whether the uncertainty argument might favor a sufficiency principle with one or more positive-thesis thresholds distinct from that negative-thesis threshold.

  6. 6.

    See MacAskill et al. (2020, pp. 112–149) for discussion of the objection and responses to it. Another worry is that, just as one may be uncertain about first-order moral issues, one may also be uncertain about the correct second-order response to that uncertainty, and the correct third-order response to that uncertainty, and so on, apparently without end. For discussion, see Sepielli (2014, 2017, pp. 113–115).

  7. 7.

    For arguments that moral uncertainty does not affect what one morally ought to do, see Weatherson (2014, 2019) and Harman (2015).

  8. 8.

    Bostrom (2013, p. 29 n. 29) mentions the importance of avoiding “irrevocable mistakes” in the context of uncertainty about conditions under which collective euthanasia might be justified. This is one application of the principle to follow in the text, which also applies to revocable mistakes of varying difficulty to rectify or compensate for.

  9. 9.

    Another way in which the example is artificial is that one will rarely have, or know that one has, credences with such precise numerical values. To that extent, MEC—like the more familiar principle of maximizing expected utility—is an idealization of the ordinary phenomenon of being more or less confident about the truth of a claim.

  10. 10.

    As Moller (2011, p. 441), acknowledges, though he claims this condition is not met in the case of distributive justice.

  11. 11.

    Even if one thinks that resources rather than well-being are the currency of distributive justice, a plausible theory of just compensation should take into account that the harm caused by an unjust deprivation of resources is especially severe when one has fewer resources to being with, so the diminishing marginal utility of resources remains important.

  12. 12.

    In this sense, the second-order moderate-threshold sufficiency principle justified by the uncertainty argument resembles Shields’ (2012, 2016) shift sufficientarianism: benefiting people takes priority over avoiding coercive redistribution only when the beneficiaries are beneath the threshold but remains morally desirable when they are above it.

  13. 13.

    In connection with moral uncertainty, see in particular Rawls’ (2005, p. 56) discussion of the “burdens of judgment,” or “the many hazards involved in the correct (and conscientious) exercise of our powers of reason and judgment in the ordinary course of political life.”

  14. 14.

    As a result of their different degrees of credence in the rival theories of distributive justice, people will disagree about the optimal sufficiency threshold for a second-order sufficiency principle, so there remains room for pragmatic compromise.

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Acknowledgements

For helpful feedback, I am grateful to Jacob Barrett, Adam Gjesdal, Connie Rosati, Justin Tosi, Samantha Yuan, two anonymous reviewers, and an audience at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress.

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Correspondence to Michael Bukoski.

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Bukoski, M. Moral Uncertainty and Distributive Sufficiency. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-021-10236-x

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Keywords

  • Sufficientarianism
  • Libertarianism
  • Distributive justice
  • Moral uncertainty
  • Maximize expected choiceworthiness