The General Theory of Second Best Is More General Than You Think

Philosophers' Imprint 20 (5):1-26 (2020)
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Lipsey and Lancaster's "general theory of second best" is widely thought to have significant implications for applied theorizing about the institutions and policies that most effectively implement abstract normative principles. It is also widely thought to have little significance for theorizing about which abstract normative principles we ought to implement. Contrary to this conventional wisdom, I show how the second-best theorem can be extended to myriad domains beyond applied normative theorizing, and in particular to more abstract theorizing about the normative principles we should aim to implement. I start by separating the mathematical model used to prove the second-best theorem from its familiar economic interpretation. I then develop an alternative normative-theoretic interpretation of the model, which yields a novel second best theorem for idealistic normative theory. My method for developing this interpretation provides a template for developing additional interpretations that can extend the reach of the second-best theorem beyond normative theoretical domains. I also show how, within any domain, the implications of the second-best theorem are more specific than is typically thought. I conclude with some brief remarks on the value of mathematical models for conceptual exploration.
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First archival date: 2018-11-20
Latest version: 4 (2019-05-17)
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