Distributive Justice and Disability: Utilitarianism Against Egalitarianism

Yale University Press, 2006

12 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2006 Last revised: 16 Jul 2008

See all articles by Mark S. Stein

Mark S. Stein

affiliation not provided to SSRN


Theories of distributive justice are most severely tested in the area of disability. In this book (Introduction available for download), Mark Stein argues that utilitarianism performs better than egalitarian theories in dealing with the problems of disability. Egalitarian theories either give too little help to the disabled or too much, depending on what is sought to be equalized. Utilitarianism achieves the proper balance by placing resources where they will do the most good.

As pure egalitarian theories fail to address disability issues in a plausible way, egalitarian theorists are driven to incorporate elements of utilitarianism into their theories. Sometimes this incorporation of utilitarianism is done relatively openly, as by Amartya Sen; sometimes is it done in an obscure fashion, as by Ronald Dworkin.

Stein concedes that utilitarianism faces particular difficulties in the distribution of life-saving medical resources. Under one interpretation, utilitarianism would require us to discriminate against the disabled in the distribution of life. Stein opposes such discrimination and marshals utilitarian arguments against it. He also points out that whatever problems utilitarianism faces here, egalitarian theories face even greater problems. Often it seems right to distribute life-saving medical resources to those who will most benefit, in the sense of gaining the most life years, and egalitarian theories cannot do so.

Stein also discusses the proper use of examples in moral theory. Many examples used by the opponents of utilitarianism, such as Robert Nozick's famous utility monster, evoke utilitarian intuitions and then turn those intuitions, deceptively, against utilitarianism.

This is the first book-length assessment of how competing theories of distributive justice deal with the problems of disability. It also offers what may be the broadest critique of egalitarian theory from a utilitarian perspective; Stein addresses the work of egalitarian theorists John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Bruce Ackerman, Martha Nussbaum, Norman Daniels, Philippe Van Parijs, and others.

Keywords: Utilitarianism, Egalitarianism, Disability, Distributive Justice

Suggested Citation

Stein, Mark S., Distributive Justice and Disability: Utilitarianism Against Egalitarianism. Yale University Press, 2006, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=886641

Mark S. Stein (Contact Author)

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