restricted access Choosing Expensive Tastes
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Choosing Expensive Tastes1

I Introduction

The possibility that individuals might have expensive tastes is the basis of arguments for and against various theories of how social resources should be allocated. Expensive tastes play a role, for example, in Dworkin's advocacy of equality of resources rather than welfare, in Rawls's account of primary goods, in Scanlon's argument for an objective criterion of well-being, and in Arneson's favoring of equality of opportunity for welfare rather than equality of welfare.2

Much of the argument about whether expensive tastes should be treated distinctively concerns whether or not individuals choose to have such tastes. If individuals are simply born with different tastes, or perhaps if they develop them through socialization when young, it is suggested, individuals should not be seen as responsible for their expensive tastes. However, it is argued that individuals should not be compensated [End Page 415] for expensive tastes that they have freely chosen — or would hypothetically have chosen — to cultivate.3

The present essay focuses exclusively on expensive tastes that individuals decide to adopt and asks this question: Why would an individual choose to have expensive tastes?4 This question should be addressed for two reasons. First, on a priori grounds, it seems that the reason an individual chooses to have expensive tastes might be relevant to whether the individual should be compensated on account of having them. Relatedly, the notion of choice or voluntary adoption of expensive tastes could be understood to have a variety of meanings in the present context, and the answer to the question of what should be deemed a choice and which choices should matter would plausibly be illuminated by considering the bases for individuals' actions that lead them to acquire expensive tastes.

Second, the very notion of choosing to have expensive tastes is prima facie paradoxical. Ceteris paribus, expensive tastes by definition make the individuals who have them worse off, so why would any individual ever voluntarily choose to develop expensive tastes? [End Page 416]

In section II, a definition of expensive tastes is offered and this paradox is elaborated, making clear the nature of the conundrum. Section III considers a number of possible answers to the question of why individuals would choose what may appear to be expensive tastes. It turns out that some explanations are unsatisfactory because they do not involve true expensive tastes; that is, on reflection, certain accounts of what seem to be expensive tastes do not constitute such accounts, at least as such tastes are defined here and as seems to be required by the distributive theories in question. Another of the candidate explanations does not, upon examination, constitute a credible reason that individuals would adopt expensive tastes. And other explanations, those most capable of explaining how individuals might come to have expensive tastes, may not carry the normative implications that most would associate with voluntary choice. It is not, however, the purpose here to determine the relevance of particular sorts of expensive tastes, however defined, in general or under any particular moral framework. Rather, the intention is simply to illuminate such inquiries by looking behind the idea of chosen expensive tastes.

II The Paradox

1. Definition of 'expensive tastes'

It is useful to begin with a definition. An individual will be said to have expensive tastes if he needs more resources to achieve a given level of well-being than if the individual instead had nonexpensive tastes, defined independently (for elaboration, see below).5 Three notes about this definition are in order.

First, in this definition, the concept of well-being is employed only for illustrative purposes. One could as easily define expensive tastes by reference to happiness, an individual's sense of the good life (that may include concern for others, moral or otherwise, or a notion of virtue), or some other metric, and the analysis to follow would largely be the same. Accordingly, hereinafter all references to well-being should be taken as a stand-in for whatever it is that individuals may seek in their lives. [End Page 417]

Second, it is not claimed that this definition is identical to those in all of the literature. Such...