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Priority and position


Positional goods are goods whose relative amount determines their absolute value. Many goods appear to have positional aspects. For example, one’s relative standing in the distribution of education and wealth may determine one’s absolute condition with respect to goods like employment opportunities, self-respect, and social inclusion. Positional goods feature in recent arguments from T.M. Scanlon, Brian Barry, and Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift that assert that we should favor egalitarian distributions of positional goods even if we reject equality as a fundamental principle of distributive justice. With respect to positional goods, worsening the better off is required to better the worse off. Thus, we have reason to “level down” goods such as education and wealth in order to benefit those worse off with respect to the value of those goods. I argue that the allegedly positional aspects of the goods in question are not actually positional. Moreover, leveling down these goods risks self-defeat: it may produce a net decrease in the value of the shares of individuals with less of such goods. If so, leveling down measures would fail on their own terms.

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  1. This story is reported in Pinker (1999, p. 390).

  2. On prioritarianism, see Parfit (2002), Arneson (2000), Crisp (2003), Temkin (2003).

  3. See, for instance, Parfit (2002), Nozick (1974, p. 229), Raz (1986, p. 235).

  4. Barry (2005), Scanlon (2003), Brighouse and Swift (2006), see also Pogge (2008), Lichtenberg (1996), Hollis (1984).

  5. Although health is the positional good in question, presumably what is under consideration for “leveling down” is the means to health, such as health care, rather than health itself.

  6. Scanlon (2003, p. 202).

  7. It is worth noting that a variety of non-prioritarian theories provide grounds for regarding equality as instrumentally valuable. However, I focus on prioritarianism in part because the main arguments for leveling down positional goods tend to make use of prioritarian premises.

  8. Brighouse and Swift (2006, p. 474).

  9. Ibid., p. 475.

  10. See, e.g., Rawls (2005, p. 358), Rawls (2001, p. 150). Even political power may not be a purely positional good. See Brighouse (1997, p. 167).

  11. Brighouse and Swift (2006, p. 478; 2008, p. 450). See also Hollis (1982), Koski and Reich (2006).

  12. Barry (2005, p. 176).

  13. Brighouse and Swift (2006, p. 478).

  14. 2006, p. 475. There are egalitarian arguments that contend that a concern for relativities as such is not irrational; however, for the purposes of this paper, I will restrict my focus to those views that do not regard relative standing as morally important in itself.

  15. This feature of prioritarianism explains why it will support leveling down positional goods in a wider range of cases than other theories that regard equality as instrumentally valuable, such as utilitarianism. In a case of leveling down that benefits the worse off to the same extent it harms the better off, a prioritarian would favor leveling down while a utilitarian would be indifferent.

  16. Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to the need to clarify this distinction.

  17. For these reasons, Brighouse and Swift (2006, p. 483) suggest that inequality might ultimately be acceptable on all things considered prioritarian grounds.

  18. A further possibility for justifying leveling down positional goods is as follows. Leveling down positional goods could be justified all things considered if equality is intrinsically valuable and, further, leveling down brings about gains in equality and benefits to particular members of the worse off class that are sufficiently great such that they outweigh the losses to other members of the worse off class. I will not pursue this argument further because the positional goods argument for leveling down advanced by Brighouse and Swift and others is intended to work without assuming the intrinsic value of equality. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting this possibility.

  19. See also Lichtenberg (1996).

  20. Brighouse and Swift (2006, p. 490).

  21. See Barry (2005, pp. 78 and 81).

  22. See Walzer (1983), Nozick (1974, p. 245), Rawls (1999, p. 470).

  23. What matters for “standing pluralism” is not genuine value pluralism but rather perceived value pluralism. That is, what matters is that individuals accept a plurality of values (rightly or wrongly) and thus render different evaluations of dimensions of comparison.

  24. Rawls (1999, p. 470).

  25. See Tesser and Paulhus (1983).

  26. Nozick (1974, p. 245).

  27. See also Ben-Ze’ev, (1992, p. 580), Lucas (1977, p. 268), Smith, et al. (1990).

  28. I am grateful to Will Wilkinson for valuable insights into wealth’s role as a producer of new social bases of self-respect.

  29. Scanlon notes that diversification can mitigate problems of self-worth. Scanlon (2003, p. 216). Yet the ways in which high social wealth facilitates diversification have been generally overlooked.

  30. See, e.g. Frank (1985). For more on the importance of reference groups and their visibility, see Runciman (1966).

  31. Rawls (1999, p. 470).

  32. Nisbett and Ross (1980, p. 45).

  33. Perhaps we should worry that technological advances have expanded people’s comparison sets beyond their local circles. However, the most recent research suggests that one’s economic standing relative to the national distribution has little effect on life satisfaction. See Stevenson and Wolfers (2008). This finding is plausibly explained by our regarding local comparisons as the most relevant to our assessments of our own lives, as these comparisons concern those people who are similarly situated to us and with whom we are in the most direct competition for (e.g.) wealth and status.

  34. See Brown et al. (2008).

  35. Walzer (1983, p. 256).

  36. On this idea, see Nozick (1974, p. 243).

  37. Ibid. See also Lucas (1965, p. 304).

  38. See Nozick (1974, p. 243).

  39. Both Robert Frank and Richard Layard cite studies that show that serotonin and testosterone concentrations in vervet monkeys correlate positively with standing in the dominance hierarchy. Frank (2000, pp. 140—142), Layard (2006, p. C27).

  40. See Lucas (1977, p. 267).

  41. 2006, p. 481. See also Scanlon (2003, p. 212), Barry (2005, p. 174).

  42. Watkins and Lee (2010).

  43. Quoted in Paul (2011).

  44. Moore (2011).

  45. Watkins and Lee (2010, p. 2).

  46. Dunbar (1993).

  47. Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for raising this question.

  48. Ibid., p. 475.

  49. Ibid., p. 478.

  50. Brighouse and Swift (2008) consider concerns regarding the negative effects of diminished human capital. Their focus, however, tends to center on the all-things-considered well-being of the least advantaged, whereas my focus here is confined to the employment opportunities of the less educated.

  51. 2006, p. 475.

  52. 2006, p. 488.

  53. Ibid.

  54. Romer (2008, p. 128).

  55. Hanushek and Wößmann (2007, p. 4).

  56. For empirical evidence that the bottom quintile of the income distribution benefits from economic growth as much as others, see Dollar and Kraay (2002).

  57. Hanushek and Wößmann (2007, p. 4).

  58. Thanks are due to Harry Brighouse for this suggestion.

  59. See, for instance, Hollis (1982), Koski and Reich (2006)

  60. I am grateful to John Thrasher for valuable discussions on this point and for emphasizing that equalizing credentials effectively destroys them.

  61. Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for raising and helpfully expounding upon this objection.

  62. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for emphasizing that my arguments could be extended in this way.


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Thanks are due to Harry Brighouse and David Estlund for their invaluable feedback on this paper. I am also grateful to Nathan Ballantyne, Gerald Gaus, David Schmidtz, Kevin Vallier, Bekka Williams, the audience at the Arizona Current Research Workshop, and an anonymous referee for this journal for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Christopher Freiman.

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Freiman, C. Priority and position. Philos Stud 167, 341–360 (2014).

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  • Positional goods
  • Distributive Justice
  • Egalitarianism
  • Prioritarianism