In the extremes of misery and flourishing Sam imagines, the amount of collective well-being is a trivial consequence of uniform amounts of individual well-being. In the former extreme, every individual’s well-being falls to its absolute lowest, so collective well-being of course falls to its absolute lowest. In the latter extreme, every individual’s well-being rises to its absolute highest, so collective well-being of course rises to its absolute highest.
Both extremes thus obscure the fact that the distribution of well-being can vary independent of collective well-being. Indeed, collective well-being is indifferent to well-being’s distribution: no matter who gains or loses well-being, scenarios ranked by collective well-being will be ranked morally better or worse based solely on the total or average well-being produced. Although Sam specifies equal distributions of well-being in each of his extreme scenarios, such that no one is better or worse off than anyone else, he likely doesn’t intend the distribution of well-being, equal or otherwise, to have any moral value apart from that of well-being itself.
Adding some specifics to (4) will shore up my claim about Sam’s intentions. Suppose the conditions in (4) are such that some individual Smith has, by random chance, become ever so slightly better off while everyone else remains absolutely miserable.1 The world is now host to an inequality of well-being in addition to a heap of misery. Sam would most likely say this world of inequality plus almost universal absolute misery is still better than absolute misery for all. After all, Sam has said that nothing could be worse than the worst possible misery for everyone. Presumably, he also believes nothing could be as bad.
I admit matters would seem worse if Smith fell back into utter misery. In other words, avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone (albeit by a hair) appears to trump avoiding inequality of well-being. So, I’ll grant that (4) is true, at least in the case involving Smith. Further, taking misery to be the opposite of well-being (just as, say, pain is the opposite of pleasure), I’ll grant that (3) is true, and that (4) is supported by (3).
Yet (5) remains in doubt. The further we get from the extremes of well-being equality that Sam imagines, the clearer we can see that our choice isn’t necessarily between avoiding inequality and avoiding absolute misery for all. Our choice can be between avoiding inequality and maximizing collective well-being.2 Now, we might want to say those two goals coincide. Doesn’t truly maximizing collective well-being require attaining equality of well-being as absolute flourishing for all? Even if it does, our choice isn’t necessarily between attaining absolute flourishing for all and settling for something less. Rather, we can conceive of a choice between minimizing inequality and attaining the greatest total or average well-being, where neither extreme Sam imagines is among our present options.
- Suppose, too, that Smith is a person of average character who seems no more deserving of absolute misery than anyone else. If Smith were, say, an unrepentant and as yet unpunished serial child rapist, the worst possible misery for everyone may well seem morally better than the worst possible misery for everyone save for Smith, serial child rapist. Although retribution is commonly understood as a form of justice, and common moral intuitions about retribution could motivate challenges to Sam’s claim that all moral value resides in well-being, I prefer to focus here on distribution apart from concerns about punishment. ↩
- It may seem we just faced that choice: return Smith to complete misery and avoid inequality or preserve Smith’s slightly improved condition and attain a greater overall level (total or average) of well-being, i.e., a relative maximum of collective well-being. Even granting that judging one possible world to be morally better or worse than another amounts to choosing one over the other, our choice still isn’t necessarily between the worst possible misery for everyone and a world just one small step removed from such abject suffering. We can be many steps away from that extreme where our choices will be different. ↩