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Why interpersonal comparisons of utility and well-being might be problematic: a philosophical analysis

Tuesday, May 7, 2024, 3:40 pm – 5:20 pm

A public CEU Philosophy talk co-hosted by the Vienna Moral Philosophy Group.


Who is better off, an Austrian university professor with a home and a family or a refugee from a war-torn country who has lost both? Interpersonal well-being comparisons, at least in some cases, seem easy. However, scepticism about utility comparisons is characteristic of the prominent Arrovian framework in social choice theory and is still influential today. The main task of this talk is to explain what the problem is when it comes to comparisons of utility and well-being. I don’t think we find a convincing answer when we look at the work of Lionel Robbins, the most influential of the sceptics, or when we look at standard presentations of the issue in the social choice literature. I will argue that there are conceptual frameworks which allow for interpersonal comparisons but any such framework incorporates philosophical assumptions which, in my view, are doubtful. This leads to a kind of scepticism which needs to be squared with the easy comparison we started with. (This talk may interest people working in moral or political philosophy.)   


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