Fleurbaey and Leppanen on expanding social welfare analysis to other species (in Journal of Bioeconomics)
October 21, 2021
There are ambitious papers and then there are ambitious papers. In the latest issue of the Journal of Bioeconomics (23/3, October 2021) is "Toward a Theory of Ecosystem Well-Being" by Marc Fleurbaey (Paris School of Economics) and Christy Leppanen (University of Tennessee), an open-access article that rejects the current human-centered (or anthropocentric) approach to welfare economics and environmental economics, and proposes, in its place, a more inclusive measure of social welfare that includes all living organisms on Earth, effectively bringing animal ethics into the domain of environmental economics.
Social welfare analysis is therefore in urgent need to shed its century-old anthropocentrism. This paper examines the scope of the reform that this move would require. The key question is whether the concepts of social welfare analysis need a complete overhaul, or can be extended. Indeed, the main task of social welfare analysis is to trade-off the interests of various members of the population under consideration. Comparing how well-off different human beings are is actually not so simple (Fleurbaey & Hammond, 2004), and has led many economists to despair that it was even possible to do on a rational, non-arbitrary basis. Different human beings differ in their abilities, needs, and goals in life, so that comparing their situations in terms of success or advantage is far from obvious. But various methods have been designed to perform that delicate task. (p. 258)
One interesting aspect of their project that stands out to me is their acknowledgment of the difficulty of measuring and comparing welfare within the human species, which they use to argue that incorporating more species into the picture does not add much more complexity.
Comparing individuals from different species is admittedly more difficult because differences in abilities, needs and goals are even larger and more profound. But it remains to be seen within this context whether inter-species comparisons are of a different nature than intra-species comparisons. This is the question we study in this paper. To do so, we review the main approaches to interpersonal comparisons that have been imagined in welfare analysis for human beings, and examine if they can be extended to comparisons across species as well. (pp. 258-59)
Fleurbaey and Leppanen preview the rest of the paper at the end of their introduction:
The next section introduces to the structure of the type of social welfare analysis that is the workhorse of this paper. In particular, it explains why in this paper we focus on the problem of well-being comparisons among individual organisms from different species and largely leave aside the problem of the evaluation of the distribution of well-being as well as questions of population sizes. In Sects. 2–5, we examine four approaches to the measurement of advantage or well-being: command over resources, hedonic well-being, objective list methods, and preference-based methods. These are the prominent methods in current social welfare analysis (Adler, 2019; Adler & Fleurbaey, 2016). In Sect. 6, we scrutinize the important issue of rescaling the measures of functionings for species with different abilities, such as longevity. This problem raises an apparent dilemma which is quite important, and echoes similar difficulties appearing among human beings with unequal capacities or with disabilities. (pp. 260-61)
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