Prioritarianism is an ethical theory according to which we should improve everyone’s situation, but especially that of those who are worse off. According to some versions of prioritarianism, we should both reduce suffering and increase happiness of individuals. However, doing this for those in worse situations is more important than for those who are better off. According to other versions of prioritarianism, increasing happiness is not important. We should focus only on reducing suffering, and reducing the suffering of those who are worse off is more important than reducing the suffering of those who are better off.1
This means that if we had the choice of making happy people much happier or unhappy people a little less unhappy, we should choose to improve the situation of the unhappy people. According to prioritarianism, this is more important than increasing the total sum of happiness of all individuals. The sum of all happiness does not take into account who is less happy to start with.
Prioritarianism differs from utilitarianism, which claims that a situation with more net happiness (total happiness minus suffering) is always better than one with less, regardless of whether the situation improves for the individuals who are the worst off. Prioritarianism values increasing net happiness, but it also takes into account how suffering and happiness are distributed among individuals. It is more important to increase the happiness of those with low levels of happiness than for those with higher levels of happiness.2 This means that for a prioritarian, a situation with less net happiness is preferable when a greater proportion of happiness is allocated to the worst off individuals. Prioritarians who align with suffering-focused ethics will give priority to reducing suffering over other increasing pleasure, and give priority to reducing the suffering of those who are in worse positions. If they give not just some priority, but total priority to the reduction of suffering over the promotion of pleasure, then the view they hold can be called negative prioritarianism.
Prioritarianism differs from egalitarianism, according to which reducing inequality is good or right.3 Prioritarians don’t necessarily accept this. This difference, however, is mainly theoretical. In practice, prioritarianism and egalitarianism often have similar results, because acting to reduce inequality usually has the same effect as acting to benefit the individuals who are the worst off.4
Another position that is similar to prioritarianism is sufficientarianism. According to sufficientarianism, all individuals should enjoy a sufficiently good situation. For sufficientarians there is a threshold below which one has a bad life, and it is most important to make sure that all individuals meet or exceed this threshold. Sufficientarians therefore give priority to individuals below this threshold because it is more important to help those below the threshold than to help those above it. Once all individuals are above the threshold however, then sufficientarians are somewhat or completely indifferent about how goods are distributed. This makes sufficientarianism different from prioritarianism, because prioritarianism favors those who are less well off even if everyone has a good life already.5
Prioritarianism can be defended from both consequentialist positions (achieving the best outcome) and non-consequentialist positions (doing what is right). Consequentialist prioritarians focus on those who are worse off in order to promote the best possible scenarios and avoid the worst ones. Non-consequentialist prioritarians argue that we should act to improve the situation of those who are worse off simply because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the actual consequences. In practice, however, these two views generally imply the same course of action.
Speciesism (discrimination against members of other species) can be challenged from many different ethical viewpoints, such as rights theories, utilitarianism, egalitarianism, suffering-focused ethics, and character-based views like virtue or care ethics. Yet despite increasing information about animal sentience and suffering, many people continue to defend speciesist positions according to which the interests of humans outweigh those of nonhuman animals. One defense of speciesism rests on the claim that because humans possess certain superior cognitive abilities their interests should count for more. Others argue that humans deserve special consideration because they can have certain relationships of solidarity with each other that they do not have with other animals. However, not all humans meet these criteria (such as babies, those lacking certain cognitive capacities, and people without close relationships to others), and that does not mean that their interests should count any less.
Such attributes and relationships are not directly relevant to how someone feels, so it’s hard to defend any criterion other than sentience, the ability to feel. This is something that human and nonhuman animals share.6 Because prioritarians consider sentience to be the relevant criterion for moral consideration, prioritarianism should imply rejecting speciesist views. A squirrel or a bee can feel, so they can be better or worse off just like a human or a dog.
According to prioritarianism, helping wild animals is important not only because wild animals deserve moral consideration. It is more important to help them than it is to help other sentient beings such as humans and companion animals because animals living in the wild are worse off. At present, the situation of nonhuman animals is far worse than that of human beings. This is not to deny that many people live in terrible circumstances for many reasons. Nevertheless, most humans lead much happier lives than most animals.
Some people may doubt this. They might admit that the situation of nonhuman animals is bad, because it is clear to anyone who is familiar with it, but they might assume that many human beings are in an even worse situation. However, there is a lot of evidence against this assumption.
To start with, many animals are used as mere resources for human benefit in ways that greatly harm them: 80 billion land vertebrates, between one and 3 trillion fishes, and an even larger number of invertebrates are killed every year by human beings, in many cases after suffering terribly throughout their existences in places like farms.7
In the wild, their fate is often dismal as well: wild animals are severely affected by disease, harmful weather conditions, hunger and thirst, injuries, and conflicts with other animals. Furthermore, the lives of most animals are very short, because most of them die soon after birth from adverse circumstances such as starvation and predation. As a result, their lives typically contain more suffering than happiness, since they must endure the suffering of their deaths but have little time to have any positive experiences.8
Advocating prioritarianism means improving the situation of the most disadvantaged, most of whom are nonhuman animals, and we must start by not harming them. This has many practical consequences.
The profits from animal exploitation are trivial compared to the enormous suffering caused to the animals exploited and killed. It’s hard to imagine anything that would go against the principles of prioritarianism as much as animal exploitation; rather than reducing suffering, it greatly increases it. Consistent prioritarianism therefore requires that we reject these practices by adopting a vegan lifestyle.
However, consistent prioritarianism has further implications. Although being vegan has a positive impact on animals and is consistent with prioritarianism, prioritarianism would require us to also work to encourage others to become vegan. Prioritarianism also implies that we should try to reduce speciesism as much as possible. This will help not only animals harmed by human beings, but also wild animals who live in difficult conditions and need our help too.
In this vein, it is worth noting that prioritarianism not only implies that we should help nonhuman animals, but that we should do so regardless of whether humans cause their suffering. It would be inconsistent to focus only on animals suffering from human exploitation when many others suffer in the wild too. This makes a strong case for helping animals in the wild whenever it is possible to do so without having an overall negative impact.
There are other reasons to focus on helping animals. Nonhuman animals receive very little attention and human causes receive a lot more. These two considerations make helping nonhuman animals more important in terms of having a greater impact than adding to the work already being done for most other causes. But these are not the reasons prioritarianism advocates prioritizing animals. Prioritarianism would prescribe helping them anyway because of their extremely bad situation. Even if our resources could make a bigger positive difference to the lives of human beings, it would be more important to help the animals if they are worse off (it would have the opposite implication if humans were worse off).
In summary, we can conclude that prioritarianism has important consequences when considering the interests of nonhuman animals. In this respect its consequences resemble those of egalitarianism, even though the reasons are different. Many other ethical views can also have similar consequences, but these two theories give us additional reasons to prioritize helping nonhuman animals because of how bad their situation is.
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1 Holtug, N. (2006) “Prioritarianism”, in Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 125-156.
2 McCarthy, D. (2006) “Utilitarianism and prioritarianism I”, Economics and Philosophy, 22, pp. 335-363; (2008) “Utilitarianism and prioritarianism II”, Economics and Philosophy, 24, pp. 1-33. Tännsjö, T. (2015) “Utilitarianism or prioritarianism?”, Utilitas, 27, pp. 240-250 [accessed on 12 May 2021].
3 Parfit, D. (1995) Equality or priority, Kansas: University of Kansas; Porter, T. (2012) “In defence of the priority view”, Utilitas, 24, pp. 349-364.
4 According to egalitarians, reducing inequality matters, but is not the only thing that matters. Other things, such as the reduction of suffering or the promotion of happiness minus suffering, matter to egalitarians. Otherwise they would prefer a situation in which everyone is equally miserable over one in which everyone is very happy but with some inequality, and no egalitarian accepts this. Therefore, in practice prioritarianism and egalitarianism typically have very similar consequences. While prioritarians argue that what matters is not how equally or unequally positive and negative things are distributed among individuals, in practice it is often the case that reducing inequality is the result of efforts to help the most disadvantaged.
5 See Crisp, R. (2003) “Equality, priority, and compassion”, Ethics, 113, pp. 745-763. Sufficientarianism is defended in Frankfurt, H. (1987) “Equality as a moral ideal,” Ethics, 98, pp. 21-43; and criticized in Casal, P. (2006) “Why sufficiency is not enough”, Ethics, 116, pp. 296-326.
6 See in particular Holtug, N. (2007) “Equality for animals”, in Ryberg, J.; Petersen, T. S. & Wolf, C. (eds.) New waves in applied ethics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24.
7 Mood, A. & Brooke, P. (2019) “Numbers of fish caught from the wild each year”, Fishcount.org.uk [accessed on 4 June 2021]. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2021) “Livestock primary”, FAOSTAT, February 19 [accessed on 4 June 2021].
8 Tomasik, B. (2019 ) “How many wild animals are there?”, Essays on Reducing Suffering, Aug 07 [accessed on 4 June 2021]. Animal Ethics (2020) Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues, Oakland: Animal Ethics [accessed on 4 June 2021].