Volume 36, 2011
Alex Friedman, Marion Danis
Intransitivity and Priority Setting
It is a basic and intuitive assumption that the relation of moral preference must be transitive—if A is overall morally preferable to B; and B is overall morally preferably to C; then, if our views are coherent, it better be the case that A is overall morally preferable to C. However, recent work by Temkin and Rachels has undermined that assumption by showing that common-sense ethical distributive principles that we are unlikely to give up generate intransitive sets of moral preferences. The consequences of this for resource allocation are profound—how can we come up with a just way of rationing limited resources if whatever course of action we adopt, there will be other alternatives that are morally preferable to it? However, regardless of the theoretical challenges, practical resource allocation decisions must be made every day! We explore an approach to dealing with some of the pragmatic aspects of the problem, even though the theoretical problem of intransitivity remains unsolved. We begin by considering whether the ways in which counterexamples to transitivity have (of necessity) been oversimplified actually contribute to the intractability of the problem by taking the possibilities of cost sharing, benefit splitting, and compensation (which are often available in real-life tradeoff situations) off the table. The proposal we end up suggesting does not rely on any assumptions or judgments about interpersonal aggregation, and so has a chance of allowing us to work around the most troubling kind of intransitivity.