Positional Goods and Upstream Agency

Originally published in Australasian Journal of Philosophy

Philosophical discussions of positional goods typically focus on parties competing for shares of such goods and on the inequalities among them that both shape and arise from these competitions. Less has been said about the actions of the various agents who shape the opportunities available to parties competing for positional goods. Such agents include suppliers of the goods in question, as well as those who instil value in these either directly or indirectly. This paper explores the complexity and normative significance of this more causally upstream agency with an emphasis on the role played by such agency in higher education. More specifically, we identify some of the forms taken by upstream agency, how the agents involved are related to each other, how they are related to the agents who actually compete for positional goods, and what sort of moral demands can be made of them. Much of this work will be taxonomic and descriptive. Our aim, however, is to show how the taxonomy that we develop and the dynamics that we describe bear on the questions with which political philosophers have tended to be more preoccupied concerning the moral significance of positional goods and how they ought to be regulated.

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