Positional Goods

part of: MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory
September 9, 2020, 9:00am - 10:00am
Department of Politics , University of Manchester

Arthur Lewis Building
Oxford Road,
Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom

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University of Manchester
University of Manchester
University of Manchester
University of Manchester

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Workshop on Positional Goods

MANCEPT 9th-11th September 2020

Convener: Tammy Harel Ben Shahar, University of Haifa

Positional goods (PG) are goods whose value for the person holding them depends on the amount other people have; when others have more of the PG, its value for that person decreases. Because their absolute and relative values are “intimately intertwined” (Axelsen & Nielsen 2015), PGs raise intriguing questions for theories of justice, questions that traverse the traditional division between competing theories of justice. Despite the increasing amount of attention PGs are gaining from philosophers, there are still many issues left unexplored and much work remains to be done. The workshop aims to address some of these issues, including:

What is the appropriate moral reaction to PGs?     Philosophers have pointed to the fact that when PGs are concerned, there are non-egalitarian reasons for favoring equal distributions. Demanding equality, however, is not the only moral response to positional competitions, and some writers point to the fact that we may also be morally required to change the structure of markets in order to decrease positional competitions. How should we respond, then, to inequality in PGs? What are the considerations for each strategy, and do they depend on circumstances? on the specific good at hand?

Which goods are positional?            Are there goods that are inherently positional or is positionality always projected upon goods by the circumstances in which they are distributed? What are the circumstances that make certain goods positional? how is positional value conferred and by which agents? What are the moral duties this may impose on specific agents? What are the relations between PGs and solidarity goods, whose value increases the more people consume them (e.g social media)? Are there other types of goods that justify unique distributive responses?

Mixed PGs     Most PGs are mixed goods, meaning that alongside their positional dimension they also have non-positional traits. While the positional aspect may require a certain distribution (typically equality), the non-positional aspects may not. Further still, positional and non-positional values have complicated relations – non-positional value may be lost when equalizing PGs, but it also may be lost when persuing PGs. What are the relations between these two dimensions, and how should we balance their competing moral dictates?

Distinctions within the PG category           Although PGs share common characteristics, there are also distinctions within the PG category which may have moral ramifications. For example, are there relevant moral differences between inequality in yachts and inequality in education? What are the moral ramifications of differences such as sensitivity to the size of inequalityor sensitivity to exclusivity versus relative amount of PGs?

Discussion of specific PGs               papers can focus on the ‘usual suspects’: education, political power, legal representation, but also on “latent” PGs -  examining the positional dimensions of basic needs, health-care and others.

How to apply

If you are interested in participating please send an abstract of up to 500 words on any topic related to the workshop’s theme to tharel@univ.haifa.ac.ilby Monday, May 25th. Presentations will be 30 minutes long, and each will be followed by 30 minutes of Q&A. Online participation will be considered in special circumstances.

For further information, contact tharel@univ.haifa.ac.il. Details concerning schedule, registration fees and applying for a bursary, are available here.  

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