A Reconsideration of the Harsanyi–Sen–Weymark Debate on Utilitarianism

Utilitas:1-39 (2016)
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Harsanyi claimed that his Aggregation and Impartial Observer Theorems provide a justification for utilitarianism. This claim has been strongly resisted, notably by Sen and Weymark, who argue that while Harsanyi has perhaps shown that overall good is a linear sum of individuals’ von Neumann-Morgenstern utilities, he has done nothing to establish any con- nection between the notion of von Neumann-Morgenstern utility and that of well-being, and hence that utilitarianism does not follow. The present article defends Harsanyi against the Sen-Weymark cri- tique. I argue that, far from being a term with precise and independent quantitative content whose relationship to von Neumann-Morgenstern utility is then a substantive question, terms such as ‘well-being’ suffer (or suffered) from indeterminacy regarding precisely which quantity they refer to. If so, then (on the issue that this article focuses on) Harsanyi has gone as far towards defending ‘utilitarianism in the original sense’ as could coherently be asked.

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Hilary Greaves
Oxford University


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