Ethics Without Numbers

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (forthcoming)
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Abstract

This paper develops and explores a new framework for theorizing about the measurement and aggregation of well-being. It is a qualitative variation on the framework of social welfare functionals developed by Amartya Sen. In Sen’s framework, a social or overall betterness ordering is assigned to each profile of real-valued utility functions. In the qualitative framework developed here, numerical utilities are replaced by the properties they are supposed to represent. This makes it possible to characterize the measurability and interpersonal comparability of well-being directly, without the use of invariance conditions, and to distinguish between real changes in well-being and merely representational changes in the unit of measurement. The qualitative framework is shown to have important implications for a range of issues in axiology and social choice theory, including the characterization of welfarism, axiomatic derivations of utilitarianism, the meaningfulness of prioritarianism, the informational requirements of variable-population ethics, the impossibility theorems of Arrow and others, and the metaphysics of value.

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Jake Nebel
Princeton University

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