The problem of unauthorized welfare

Noûs 25 (3):295-321 (1991)
Abstract
I shall address a familiar, yet persistent, problem confronted by welfare-based moral theories. Welfare is often based on suspect attitudes. Many people's pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction, for example, are based on racist, sexist, envious, meddlesome, or mali¬cious attitudes. Is welfare derived from such sources relevant to the deter¬mination of what is morally permis¬sible? Almost everyone has at least some "suspect" attitudes, so to ignore welfare based on suspect attitudes is to ignore things that people actually care about. To take such welfare at face value, however, seems to give it too much of a role in determining what is permis¬sible. The welfare that a sadist gains from torturing others, it seems, does not have the same status as the welfare that victims lose. This problem has already been discussed by a number of authors. Typically, however, authors take one of two extreme positions: they hold that all welfare should be taken at face value, or they hold that "suspect" welfare should be completely ignored. My contribution here is the following: First, I introduce the notion of unauthor¬ized (suspect) welfare, of which welfare from meddlesome preferences, offensive tastes, expensive tastes, etc. are special cases. Second, I formu¬late four condi¬tions of adequacy, applicable to any welfare-based theory, for dealing with unauthor¬ized welfare. These conditions require that unauthorized welfare be "discount¬ed" (play a restricted role) but not be completely ignored. Thus, I shall be explor¬ing a position inter¬mediate between taking "unauthor¬ized" welfare at face value and simply ignoring it. Moreover, the four conditions jointly determine exactly how existing welfare-based theories need to be revised so as to be appropriately sensitive to unauthorized welfare. The problem of suspect welfare is best known for the problems it raises for utilitarianism, but the problem arises for all welfare-based theories. Welfare is here understood as subjective well-being. Pleasure, happiness, and preference satis¬faction are each conceptions of welfare, but liberty, health, wealth, and skills are not. Welfare-based moral theories base permis¬sibility at least partly on the extent to which welfare is pro¬moted. Utilita¬rianism is the most well-known example of a welfare-based theory. Welfare egalitarianism (which requires that welfare be distri¬buted as equally as possible), and maximin wel¬farism (which requires that the minimum welfare be maximized) are two other examples. The paper, it should be emphasized, is very exploratory. My goal is to stake out some unexplored terrain, and boldly to erect a theoretical foundation. That foundation will no doubt will be weak at a number of points -- and perhaps even completely unstable. But I hope that it will at least provide the basis for future construction.
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