Frege’s puzzle and the ex ante Pareto principle

Philosophical Studies 178 (6):2077-2100 (2021)
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Abstract

The ex ante Pareto principle has an intuitive pull, and it has been a principle of central importance since Harsanyi’s defence of utilitarianism. The principle has been used to criticize and refine a range of positions in welfare economics, including egalitarianism and prioritarianism. But this principle faces a serious problem. I have argued elsewhere :303-323 2017) that the concept of ex ante Pareto superiority is not well defined, because its application in a choice situation concerning a fixed population can depend on how the members of that population are designated. I show in this paper that in almost all cases of policy choice, there will be numerous sets of rival designators for the same fixed population. I explore two ways that we might complete the definition of ex ante Pareto superiority. I call these the ‘supervaluationist’ reading and the ‘subvaluationist’ reading. I reject the subvaluationist reading as uncharitable, and argue that the supervaluationist reading is the most promising interpretation of the ex ante Pareto principle. I end by exploring some of the implications of this principle for prioritarianism and egalitarianism.

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Anna Mahtani
London School of Economics

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