Everybody to Count for One? Inclusion and Exclusion in Welfare-Consequentialist Public Policy

Revised with major modifications, resubmitted June 2020, Moral and Political Philosophy.

Public policy should try to make individuals’ lives better than they would otherwise be, according to welfare-consequentialism. This article asks which individuals should count in welfare-consequentialist public policy analysis. Possible answers to the “who counts” question fall along a spectrum between parochial and inclusive. One relatively parochial answer is that only welfare effects experienced by the living human constituents of government should be considered. At the other end of the spectrum, a highly inclusive answer would be that welfare impacts on all individuals who are capable of having welfare should be weighed equally in a social welfare function.

The paper proposes a two-level theory to respond to the “who counts” question. Two-level theories distinguish between (i) what is ethically ideal, and (ii) decision procedures for humans who want to give effect to an ethical ideal, but have limited capacity to do so. Persuasive arguments support an inclusive approach that encompasses the unborn, foreigners, and animals. However, human predictions of the welfare consequences of policy options are prone to error. Welfare predictions about individuals who are temporally, politically, or biologically dissimilar from the predicting government are especially likely to be wrong. Using a social welfare function with excessive welfare-prediction requirements to make decisions may undermine the government’s capacity to correctly predict and advance anyone’s welfare. The paper concludes by analyzing alternative ways to make welfare-consequentialist decision procedures more parochial, and therefore more practical for real human governments seeking to make life better for everybody.

Full Text Online: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3392370