14th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Fardell

Benjamin Fardell

What is to have enough? Sufficiency and the threshold problem

That people have enough (in some sense) is plausibly something that matters greatly. Both in how we live our own lives, and in ethical and political action towards others, to have enough is very plausibly an important goal. Yet in ethics and political philosophy sufficiency is not commonly regarded an attractive ideal. Doubts about sufficiency typically relate to how a threshold level of sufficiency seems to figure in the idea. Critics point to serious problems with distribution involving thresholds. However, I want to draw out a problem that I believe lies behind these worries, and to suggest a way it might be avoided. That problem is that of explaining why there should be any threshold or state of sufficiency at all, and how a threshold might fit in with familiar accounts of well-being. More specifically, what I will call the Threshold Problem is this: if we think a person’s well-being can be represented on a single scale, why should any particular level on that scale have the special significance a theory of sufficiency would assign it? In this paper I explain why and how the Threshold Problem presents such a serious challenge—why adequate reasons for setting any particular threshold should prove so elusive. Clearly describing this challenge tells us something important about how we must conceptualise sufficiency. I will argue that if there is such a thing as sufficiency then something many would consider radical must be the case: fundamentally, well-being must be something that cannot be represented by levels on a single scale. I will show why this must be so, and suggest that we might make room for sufficiency and avoid the Threshold Problem if we conceive of well-being in terms of the irreducible disparate needs a person has. Sufficiency, then, would be having everything you need.