Aggregation Without Interpersonal Comparisons of Well‐Being

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 105 (1):18-41 (2022)
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Abstract

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.

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Jake Nebel
Princeton University

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