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Dale Dorsey, The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach

Andrew Reeve
p. 245-248
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Dale Dorsey, The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, xvii + 217 pages, ISBN 978-1107017115

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The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist ApproachAfficher l’image
Crédits : Cambridge University Press

1This book is a contribution to a theory of morality. It is part of a larger project concerned with finding the best way to “promote the interests of the least advantaged” (208). The thesis of the monograph is that if it is true that individuals should be provided with a basic minimum, that minimum should be conceived as the maintenance of a particular level of welfare. We may note the conditional claim. Professor Dorsey’s version of the welfarist basic minimum is this: “A achieves the basic minimum over the course of a life l if and only if A successfully achieves or maintains a valued project in l” (53). We should note that his preferred understanding of the concept of a basic minimum is “Basic minimum 3”, which holds that “p is a basic minimum if and only if p is a valuable absolute state of persons, which—in the general case—maintains at least weak moral priority to all other valuable states of persons” (7).

2There are, of course, other possible specifications of the basic minimum (and some other welfarist and non-welfarist ones are offered in Dorsey’s exploration of possible difficulties). The literature on egalitarianism by itself has seen intense debates about what it is that an egalitarian should aim to equalise—for example resources, welfare, or capabilities—so a basic minimum might be conceived in terms of resources or capabilities as well. Additionally, there are advocates of an approach that focuses on opportunities to achieve something, rather than results. There are theories of (universal) basic income, according to which all citizens should receive such an amount at particular intervals, or theories of basic capital, according to which individuals should receive a lump sum at a particular point in their lives. In addition, there are needs-based theories, according to which everyone has a claim to have (basic) needs satisfied, and social inclusion proposals, which hold that it is possible to specify what is minimally necessary to be a participant in a particular society and that everyone should have what is so required. In his first chapter, Dorsey reviews and rejects five such conceptions—having a certain level of resources or primary goods; a state of human subsistence; social needs; basic human needs; the maintenance of certain central capabilities.

3This is a challenging book for two reasons. First, it is a challenge for its author to defend a welfarist account against criticisms of it and against the claims of alternative approaches. Secondly, it is a thoroughly philosophical book concerned with the moral bases of these approaches. This is not, of course, a criticism—but the prospective reader should be forewarned that Dorsey is engaged in a dialogue with himself and others that requires very close attention. As he himself says in the Preface: “Some thinkers interested in a basic minimum might find my methodology alienating, lacking engagement with the genuine problems of the world for which a basic minimum is a required tool” (vii). As he also says, “Like all philosophical matters …, the devil is in the details” (1). And there are plenty of details.

4Dorsey tells us his argument is modular. The first module, encompassing the first three chapters, is about the basic minimum, different conceptions of it—as we have seen—and a response to challenges. The second module explores how intrinsically valuable the basic minimum is, compared to other valuable states. The third concerns the question of whether there is a right to the basic minimum, and argues that there is not—but the intrinsic moral value of the basic minimum is weighty, and the reason to promote it is the same as that to promote “overall goodness”. Dorsey stresses that he thinks his account coheres throughout, but explains that the modules are independent in the sense that his overall approach can be accepted at the same time as rejecting a particular module. This is forwarded as an argumentative strategy, since a major objective is to give those doubtful about the welfarist approach reasons to revise their view—and the particular modules are dealing with inevitably controversial issues. In view of this, I concentrate on his account of different conceptions of the basic minimum and his defence of a welfarist basic minimum.

5We must also attend to Dorsey’s explicit statements about what he is not doing (207-208)—or, at least, not doing in this volume. He is not arguing that the basic minimum should exist, but attempting the “more modest” task of clarifying the structure of a basic minimum. He is not dealing with issues about the scope of our relevant moral obligations—whether, for example, they are to our fellow citizens or more widely owed. He is providing a moral theory which might guide social policy, but the book does not concern itself with social policy—although he finds the capabilities approach appealing in social policy design. He acknowledges that he is not dealing with issues of political neutrality (that is, his view is incompatible with political neutrality because it contains a substantive theory of the good life, but he invites us to treat it as a moral theory). It is, of course, a long journey from a theory of (political) morality to institutional design and substantive public policy, but the absence of much of an indication of the implications of his view, coupled with the conditional nature of his thesis—that if there should be a basic minimum, it should be conceived as his particular welfare basic minimum—might surprise some readers focused on the ‘political’ in political morality.

6Dorsey is ecumenical between some accounts of ‘life quality’ but not all conceptions of human welfare. He makes the legitimate complaint that finding problems with preference-satisfaction or mental-state accounts is not to defeat all welfare accounts (36). For his own account of welfare, he points to a distinction between short-term satisfactions and longer-term goals that “define and give meaning to our life’s activities” (38). He wants to separate satisfactions from “a life-structuring activity, goal or achievement” which is a “‘global project’” (38). When the possessor of the global project values it, it is a valued project. So having avoided dealing in satisfactions, Dorsey asserts that “a global project is a primary element in an individual’s life story …” (40). “Valued projects are the primary element of human welfare, the success or failure of which is the most important determinant of the prudential quality of a life” (39). As Dorsey notes, this view (he calls it Thesis) has been endorsed by a number of distinguished thinkers, and an early version of it was proposed by Joseph Raz. Raz explicitly required the valued project to be valuable. Two related questions immediately present themselves. Can satisfactions be adequately distinguished from global projects? Is the concept of a ‘global project’ sufficiently determinate? On the first, Dorsey confesses that a precise distinction is going to be elusive, partly because an answer to the second requires identifying the common features of a diverse range of possible projects. He finds that there are three conditions of something being a project that are jointly necessary and sufficient. Global projects “narratively unify, in a broad sense, a person’s actions and decisions and must be the product of such actions and decisions”; and must tell a person’s life-story of “significant temporal duration” (40). Although Dorsey has more to say about global projects, two final points should be noted. He does not require that a person knows he is engaged in a global project, or has decided to pursue it, for it to qualify. (Presumably the person values what he does without knowing that there is a narrative unifying his activities as a global project.) Secondly, projects that many might regard as without (much) value, such as being a ‘reality TV watcher’, also qualify. The question of ‘What is a valued project?’ is discussed in a further section.

7Given this specification of the content of the account of welfare in question, is it possible to define a line that clearly has the moral significance the basic minimum requires? Is the basic minimum arbitrary? The claim is of course that it isn’t. Those who do not maintain a valued global project do not have lives of “valued and self-directed ‘meaning’ …” (54). Those who achieve the basic minimum are able to maintain their conception of the good to a sufficient degree. But this brings in the problem of why the person values a particular project—is it as a result of adaptive preferences? (78). Further, does the relative expense of a project matter—so that those who have expensive projects are entitled to more resources?

8The problem of adaptive preferences has been put forward as a serious challenge to welfarism, so it is fitting that Dorsey provides a complete chapter devoted to solving (or avoiding?) it. He spends some time teasing out what is to be regarded as ‘the’ problem—and decides that we need access to a person’s ‘true’ conception of the good. He proposes an account of a person’s genuine preferences as “preference coherentism” (or PC). Preference coherentism holds that “a person’s genuine conception of the good is constituted by her evaluative beliefs, rendered coherent and complete” (89). “PC avoids the problem of adaptive preferences by blocking the cognitive conditions that yield adaptive preferences” (98).

9The issue of expensive tastes and projects is discussed in Dorsey’s Chapter on objections to welfarism, and he considers it the most important of the objections considered. (Rather disarmingly, he writes that “… I recognize that the reader may have grown impatient” (176) that these objections have not been discussed until the final chapter.) Dorsey argues that if a person has control over his preferences, but by choice values only expensive projects, he has cultivated his tastes; and PC rules these out because they do not constitute a person’s genuine values (180). PC, then, does a lot of work in the overall account, because it is deployed to solve the problem of adaptive preferences, including those for certain expensive projects.

10Has Dorsey rehabilitated the welfare basic minimum? As a matter of normative ethical and meta-ethical philosophy, he has certainly provided a strong challenge to the sceptics. There are of, of course, many parts of that challenge which I have not mentioned. Given his own objectives, this is, as he says, “progress” (vii). Helping us get to the implications of his conception of the basic minimum for public policy is clearly a different matter, at least for now, beyond his approval of the capabilities approach in this domain. But given the moral seriousness with which he writes about “the long and difficult project of best promoting the interests of the least-advantaged among us” (208), let us hope that the progress he has made will be built upon by him and others.

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Andrew Reeve, « Dale Dorsey, The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach », Œconomia, 5-2 | 2015, 245-248.

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Andrew Reeve, « Dale Dorsey, The Basic Minimum: A Welfarist Approach », Œconomia [En ligne], 5-2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL :

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Andrew Reeve

University of Warwick,

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