Econometrica: Jul 2017, Volume 85, Issue 4
A Fairness Justification of Utilitarianism
Paolo Giovanni Piacquadio
Differences in preferences are important to explain variation in individuals' behavior. There is, however, no consensus on how to take these differences into account when evaluating policies. While prominent in the economic literature, the standard utilitarian criterion is controversial. According to some, interpersonal comparability of utilities involves value judgments with little objective basis. Others argue that social justice is primarily about the distribution of commodities assigned to individuals, rather than their subjective satisfaction or happiness. In this paper, we propose and axiomatically characterize a criterion, named opportunity-equivalent utilitarian, that addresses these claims. First, our criterion ranks social alternatives on the basis of individuals' ordinal preferences. Second, it compares individuals based on the fairness of their assignments. Opportunity-equivalent utilitarianism requires society to maximize the sum of specific indices of well‐being that are cardinal, interpersonally comparable, and represent each individual's preferences.
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