Utils and Shmutils

Ethics 131 (3):571-599 (2021)
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Matthew Adler's Measuring Social Welfare is an introduction to the social welfare function (SWF) methodology. This essay questions some ideas at the core of the SWF methodology having to do with the relation between the SWF and the measure of well-being. The facts about individual well-being do not single out a particular scale on which well-being must be measured. As with physical quantities, there are multiple scales that can be used to represent the same information about well-being; no one scale is special. Like physical laws, the SWF and its ranking of distributions cannot depend on exactly which of these scales we use. Adler and other theorists in the SWF tradition have used this idea to derive highly restrictive constraints on the shape of the SWF. These constraints rule out seemingly plausible views about distributive justice and population ethics. I argue, however, that these constraints stem from a simple but instructive mistake. The SWF should not be applied to vectors of numbers such as 1 and 2, but rather to vectors of dimensioned quantities such as 1 util and 2 utils. This seemingly pedantic suggestion turns out to have far-reaching consequences. Unlike the orthodox SWF approach, treating welfare levels as dimensioned quantities lets us distinguish between real changes in well-being and mere changes in the unit of measurement. It does this without making the SWF depend on the scale on which welfare is measured, and in a way that avoids the restrictive constraints on the shape of the SWF.
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First archival date: 2020-10-21
Latest version: 2 (2021-03-18)
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