Gerard Vong (Emory): Diagnosing a Methodological Error in Distributive Fairness Debates: Lotteries, Pluralism and An Impossibility Result

Preceded by a pre-talk for graduate students, 1:30PM Benjamin Library

Abstract and simplified thought experiments are an important methodological tool in philosophy. However I argue that the overreliance on thought experiments of this kind can and has led to both false conclusions and ongoing misguided debates. In order to do so, I will focus on one particular type of thought experiment: paradigmatic lifesaving thought experiments that are central to philosophical debates about distinctive fairness. In the paradigmatic lifesaving case, one can choose to save the occupants of two sinking lifeboats, where all occupants are relevantly similar in all morally relevant respects except one: the numbers of occupants in the lifeboats vary (e.g. 1v1, 1v5, 1000v1001 etc.). In cases of this type, some philosophers (e.g. Broome, Peterson, Huseby) argue that it is fair to run an 'unweighted' lottery that gives each individual an equal chance of being saved. Others (e.g. Saunders) instead argue that it is fair to run a 'weighted' lottery that gives each group a chance of being saved that is proportional to the size of the group. While the views proposed in the literature have some plausibility when restricted only to these thought experiments, once one or more implicit simplifying assumptions in the case are removed, none of the views remain plausible. Furthermore, I argue that the ongoing debate between unweighted and weighted lottery theorists is misguided. I then present a new pluralist theory of distributive fairness and respond to objections. If time permits, I may consider the implications for other philosophical debates that rely on similar simplified thought experiments, such as the trolley problem.

Date & time

Thu 07 Dec 2017, 3:30pm to 5:30pm


Coombs Seminar Rm A


Gerard Vong

Event series


Updated:  7 December 2017/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications