Should losses count? A critique of the complaint model

Choice Group Working Papers (2006)
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The Complaint Model is an interpretation of Scanlon’s contractualism which holds that (1) an individual can reasonably reject a distribution of well-being when her complaint against that distribution is larger than any other person’s complaint against any other distribution. The Complaint Model further holds that (2) the size of an individual’s complaint against a distribution is a function of (2a) her absolute level of well-being under that distribution, with the size of her complaint increasing as her absolute level of well-being decreases, and (2b) the size of her loss in well-being under that distribution relative to the level of well-being she could have enjoyed under the distribution most favourable to her, with the size of her complaint increasing as her loss increases. In this paper, I argue that the Complaint Model should be rejected, because the way in which it takes individuals’ losses into account leads to strongly counterintuitive results. In particular, I show that the Complaint Model may sacrifice the well-being associated with the least-well-off, secondleast-well-off, etc. positions for the sake of minimizing the largest complaint. I also argue that revisions to element (1) to allow for the aggregation of complaints must either leave the Complaint Model vulnerable to this objection or lead it to collapse into prioritarianism. The failure of the Complaint Model may lead us to search for an alternative way of taking losses into account. I conclude by arguing that the attractiveness of the Anonymous Pareto principle poses a challenge to any such alternative.

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Alex Voorhoeve
London School of Economics


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