On the possibility of limited weighing of lives

Abstract: This thesis discusses the possibility of limited moral trade-offs between different people’s welfare. In chapter 2, I introduce the two central limited trade-off conditions. First, according to minimal infinite superiority, significantly benefiting one person matters more than slightly benefiting each of any number of better-off people. Second, according to minimal finite superiority, significantly benefiting many people matters more than slightly benefiting one person. I consider both axiological and deontic interpretations of these conditions. However, I explain why none of the simple classic moral principles—the simple total and the maximin principles—satisfy both conditions. Furthermore, in chapter 3, I strengthen several proved impossibility results according to which no moral theory satisfies weak interpretations of these central trade-off conditions and several other seemingly plausible minimal conditions. I show that giving up structural axiological and deontic conditions is not a satisfactory solution to these paradoxes. In chapter 4, I discuss the modification of a background assumption of these impossibility results on the measurement of welfare. I show that, given a modification that allows for lexicographically ordered welfare components, a total principle can satisfy all the conditions of the impossibility results. However, I argue that such a modification is not entirely satisfactory because it does not apply in certain instances of the paradoxes. In chapter 5, I discuss a further weakening of minimal infinite superiority. However, I show that a suggested possibility result based on this modification is not valid and that further moral conditions, such as minimal finite superiority, need to be modified. Moreover, I argue that these modified conditions and the principle suggested in the possibility proof—a minimax complaint principle—do not capture the basic idea of the two central limited trade-off conditions sufficiently well. In chapter 6, I argue that other principles suggested for the task—the total claim principles—share the same fate as the simple total principles or the minimax complaint principle. In chapter 7, I propose new principles that take their structural roots from voting theory. I show that, in contrast to the other principles discussed, these principles give plausible verdicts where the other principles failed. Finally, in chapter 8, I consider possible objections levelled against this proposal, and I suggest solutions and avenues for future research.

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