Prioritarianism: A Response to Critics

43 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2018

See all articles by Matthew D. Adler

Matthew D. Adler

Duke University School of Law

Nils Holtug

University of Copenhagen

Date Written: April 2, 2018


Prioritarianism is a distinctive moral view. Outcomes are ranked according to the sum of concavely transformed well-being numbers—by contrast with utilitarianism, which simply adds up well-being. Thus, unlike utilitarians, prioritarians give extra moral weight to the well-being of the worse off. Unlike egalitarians, prioritarians endorse an axiom of person-separability: the ranking of outcomes is independent of the well-being levels of unaffected individuals. Unlike sufficientists, who give no priority to the worse-off if their well-being exceeds a “sufficiency” threshold, prioritarians always favor the worse-off in conflicts with those at higher well-being levels. Derek Parfit is prioritarianism’s most famous proponent. We have also defended prioritarianism. Not everyone is persuaded. Prioritarianism has been vigorously criticized, from a variety of perspectives, most visibly by John Broome, Campbell Brown, Lara Buchak, Roger Crisp, Hilary Greaves, David McCarthy, Michael Otsuka, Ingmar Persson, Shlomi Segall, Larry Temkin, and Alex Voorhoeve. In this Article, we answer the critics.

Keywords: prioritarianism, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, sufficientism, Parfit

Suggested Citation

Adler, Matthew D. and Holtug, Nils, Prioritarianism: A Response to Critics (April 2, 2018). Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2018-32, Available at SSRN: or

Matthew D. Adler (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

Nils Holtug

University of Copenhagen ( email )

Karen Blixens Vej 4
Copenhagen S, Copenhagen DK - 2300

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