==== Can a utilitarian justify giving special priority to the needs of the worst-off? Should he seek to do so? ====

I argue a resounding yes. Not only can a Utilitarian justify giving special priority to the needs of the worst-off, but they must do so in order to be a Utilitarian. They should seek to do so even at the cost of the better-off. I shall also argue that a Utilitarian should give special priority to the worst-off especially at the cost of the better-off for the sake of justice and for the sake removing a materialistic burden that hampers the true purpose of the better-off.

My basic argument that justifies the prioritising of the worst-off even at the cost of the better-off is a simple one. We must remember we are animals. What use has a mouse for an entire moon of cheese? The utility is lost beyond a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand nibbles because it cannot possibly eat that much. Furthermore, the mouse may eat itself to death or at least do damage to itself through over indulgence. Likewise, a human has no use for extravagant sums of money, and such a sum is likely to have negative effects on the owner. In other words, it is possible to have too much. For a Utilitarian this results in the following:

1. For the worse-off a fixed sum of money will have greater utility than for the better-off. The ‘more worse-off’ a person is the more ‘utility points’ a thing is worth in their hands. 2. The Utilitarian should help the wealthy by removing their materialistic burden and sharing it among those who can still benefit from material wealth.

Underlying these points and indeed the whole of Utilitarianism is a problematic assumption that there is a purpose for people beyond achieving a certain level of material wealth. As Williams (1995) points out, if we are concerned with the good of each person then surely we are concerned with what they are concerned with . But what if the rich person wants more wealth? The Utilitarian is forced into claiming he knows better than the rich person he is concerned with, and that he believes he knows that the rich person should not want more wealth and would be happier (or ‘better’ some significant way) by having less money and a change of attitude. Utilitarians therefore claim to know what is good for people. This means that Utiltarians must either claim objective knowledge of what the purpose of life is, or have as Sedgewick (1877)(as cited by Williams 1995, 162) calls it, “intuitive” knowledge - that is, a instinctive feeling of what is good for someone. The only alternative is that the Utilitarian allows for rich person to want more wealth, but because of point 1 the Utilitarian should seek to encourage or force the rich person to give their money away having pursued their desire to obtain it, to those worse-off. Either way, the Utilitarian is in conflict with the concerns of the rich person who wants more, which leads back to my essay thesis: The Utilitarian must give special priority to the needs of the worst-off. The Utilitarian priorities are aligned with the plight of the worst-off because the worst-off both desire more wealth and need it. Further explanation of why excess wealth is a burden is needed here. I draw this argument from first hand experience of a solo hike of five hundred and fifty miles along the Appalachian Trail which I completed recently. On this journey everything I needed was on my back. Temporarily free of societal class, expectations and materialistic greed life was more healthy, more fulfilling, more educational and better in every way imaginable. It became apparent and continues to be so, that our supposed ‘need’ for the vast majority of our material possessions is merely a matter of habit, a habit that can be broken remarkably easily, as well as re-formed easily. I assert that all material wealth must be carried as a burden regardless of whether it is physically on our backs or not. We may not feel it, but it is there, destroying our virtue and separating us from each other, which is a barrier to happiness, the desired end of the Utilitarian.

As well as excess money being realized to be a hindrance to a good life rather than a prerequisite, there was social freedom also. A bearded raggled hiker has no class or rank. If a ‘stranger’ needed food, you give it to them, regardless of whether you carried it a hundred miles on your back or not. It becomes apparent that with a little change in perspective all people are brothers and sisters. There were no strangers on the Appalachian Trail, and so there need be no strangers anywhere else. Having had this realization, which is available to everyone, how can a rich person be happy while deliberately causing the suffering of their brothers and sisters by keeping basic resources from them that they need to survive? I argue that a rich person would choose to give their money away if they were made aware or made more acutely aware of the suffering of others caused by their lack of wealth and also that the rich person would be happier if they did so.

The paradox of replication

A Utilitarian obviously believes in Utilitarianism. It doesn’t make sense to believe in Utilitarianism and to think it isn’t the best belief for others to hold also. Therefore Utilitarians believe everyone should ideally be a Utilitarian. This uncovers a paradox. It would surely be most efficient for the Utilitarian to convert others to Utilitarianism, who will then do the same thereby multiplying the effect. This means the original Utilitarian is not concerned with the concerns of others after all. They are paradoxically concerned with seeing their own principles instilled in others, and their own principles are, to be concerned about the concerns of others, which is best done by instilling Utilitarian principles and ignoring the individuals concerns. Taking this replication paradox into account the best course of action for a Utilitarian is to convert a rich person. The best argument to convert them is made by holding the example of the plight worst-off up to the rich, thus giving the needs of the poor special priority over moderately well-off. This compounds with my previous argument that concludes that the ‘more worse-off’ a person is the more ‘utility points’ a thing is worth in their hands, which means the newly converted rich person would be giving out more ‘utility points’ by helping the worst-off whom they have been made aware of, thus satisfying the original Utilitarian’s original goals of being concerned with the concerns of others in terms of maximizing utility.

Utilitarianism beyond material utility

I previously claimed that it is possible to have too much material wealth and that behind Utilitarianism is an assumption that people need a certain minimum amount of wealth in order to allow them to achieve some higher purpose, perhaps happiness. But what happens when a Utilitarian meets someone who has just the ‘right amount?’ Do they move quickly onto someone else? What would happen if everyone did have the ‘right amount’? What is ‘utility’ then? What is the purpose of having enough and what are people trying to have enough for? If the answer is happiness, what is happiness?

I argue that ultimate purpose of a Utilitarian and indeed the purpose everyone is to progress in a spiritual nature. Kandinsky described this excellently in The Movement of the Triangle (1914):

“The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. …The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. …Too often it happens that one level of spiritual food suffices for the nourishment of those who are already in a higher segment. But for them this food is poison; in small quantities it depresses their souls gradually into a lower segment. Ceaselessly souls fall from the higher to the lower segments of the triangle.”

Kandinsky writes of spiritual food and he says that artists provide the spiritual food. If the purpose of a person is to find spiritual nourishment then they must first surely have basic material nourishment, otherwise the physical suffering will be a distraction. Furthermore, too much basic material food is likely to be a distraction from spiritual nourishment. Sedewick said everyone is an intuitive Utilitarian. I argue that everyone is a ultimately ‘of spirit’, and of the same spirit, and that intuition is actually a spiritual intuition rather than a material one, which tells us what we need to do to rise up Kandinsky’s triangle while helping others rise up also.

Currently in the world there are a great many more poor people than there are rich. Therefore more ‘souls’ can be helped in a Utilitarian fashion by giving special priority to the needs of the worst-off, who are both the easiest to help and the most numerous.


I have explained in practical material terms why the worst-off should be given special priority by a Utilitarian. I have also connected Utilitarianism to a greater form of spiritual Utilitarianism, which grasps beyond material utility and gives endless purpose to a Utilitarian. I have explained that the rich need help also, but that because the poor are more numerous and because in their hands money is of greater utility a Utilitarian is justified in giving them special priority.


Williams, B. (1995) The Point of View of the Universe. Making Sense of Humanity. 153-171

Sidgewick, H. (1877) The Methods of Ethics, Second edition, Book 4, 424-455

Kandinsky, W. (1911) Über das Geistige in der Kunst, translated by Sadler, M.T. H. (1914) The Art of Spiritual Harmony <http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/kandinskytext2.htm#2> (22nd February 2011)


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