Nebel on Harsanyi's aggregation theorem
October 22, 2021
Forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, "Aggregation without Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being" by Jacob M. Nebel (University of Southern California) weighs in on a timeless debate in social choice theory:
This paper is about the role of interpersonal comparisons in Harsanyi’s aggregation theorem. Harsanyi interpreted his theorem to show that a broadly utilitarian theory of distribution must be true even if there are no interpersonal comparisons of well-being. How is this possible? The orthodox view is that it is not. Some argue that the interpersonal comparability of well-being is hidden in Harsanyi’s premises. Others argue that it is a surprising conclusion of Harsanyi’s theorem, which is not presupposed by any one of the premises. I argue instead that Harsanyi was right: his theorem and its weighted-utilitarian conclusion do not require interpersonal comparisons of well-being. The key to making sense of this possibility is to treat Harsanyi’s weights as dimensional constants rather than dimensionless numbers.
Aside from Nebel's own novel contribution, this paper offers a fine overview of Harsanyi's arguments and subsequent commentary on them. (Earlier this year, Nebel also published "Utils and Shmutils," a review of Matthew Adler's Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction, in Ethics.)
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.