Skip to main content


  • J. Paul Kelleher (a1)

Several areas of welfare economics seek to evaluate states of affairs as a function of interpersonally comparable individual utilities. The aim is to map each state of affairs onto a vector of individual utilities, and then to produce an ordering of these vectors that can be represented by a mathematical function assigning a real number to each. When this approach is used in intertemporal contexts, a central theoretical question concerns the rate of pure time preference, i.e. the evaluative weight to be applied to utility coming at different times. This article criticizes the standard philosophical account of pure time preference, arguing that it ascribes to economists a methodological commitment they need not accept. The article then evaluates three further objections to pure time preference, concluding that it might still be defensible under certain circumstances. I close by articulating a final argument that, if sound, would constitute a decisive objection to pure time preference as it currently figures in much intertemporal welfare economics.

Hide All
Adler, M. D. 2012. Well-being and Fair Distribution: Beyond Cost-benefit Analysis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Adler, M. D. and Treich, N.. 2015. Prioritarianism and climate change. Environmental and Resource Economics 62 (2): 279308.
Alexander, L. and Moore, M.. 2012. Deontological ethics. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), ed. Zalta, E. N.. URL: <>.
Arrow, K. 1995. Intergenerational equity and the rate of discount in long-term social investment. Unpublished paper presented to IEA World Congress. URL: <>.
Arrow, K. 1999. Discounting, morality, and gaming. In Discounting and Intergenerational Equity, ed. Portney, P. R. and Weyant, J. P., 1321. New York, NY: Resources for the Future.
Arrow, K., Cline, W., Maler, K.-G., Munasinghe, M., Squitieri, R. and Stiglitz, J.. 1996. Intertemporal equity, discounting and economic efficiency. In Climate Change 1995: Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, ed. Bruce, J. et al., 128144. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Asheim, G. B. and Buchholz, W.. 2003. The malleability of undiscounted utilitarianism as a criterion of intergenerational justice. Economica 40: 405422.
Beckerman, W. and Hepburn, C.. 2007. Ethics of the discount rate in the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. World Economics 8: 187210.
Broome, J. 1992. Counting the Costs of Global Warming. Cambridge: The White Horse Press.
Broome, J. 1994. Discounting the future. Philosophy and Public Affairs 23 (2): 128156.
Broome, J. 2002. All goods are relevant. In Summary Measures of Population Health, ed. Murray, C. J. L., Salomon, J. A., Mathers, C. D. and Lopez, A. D., 727729. Geneva: World Health Organization.
Broome, J. 2004. Weighing Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Broome, J. 2008. The ethics of climate change. Scientific American 298 (6): 96102.
Broome, J. 2012. Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.
Brown, C. 2011. Consequentialize this. Ethics 121 (4): 749771.
Caney, S. 2008. Human rights, climate change, and discounting. Environmental Politics 17 (4): 536555.
Caney, S. 2014. Climate change, intergenerational equity and the social discount rate. Politics, Philosophy and Economics 13 (4): 320342.
Cowen, T. and Parfit, D.. 1992. Against the social discount rate. In Justice Between Age Groups and Generations, ed. Laslett, P. and Fishkin, J. S., 144161. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Clarkson, R. and Deyes, K.. 2002. Estimating the social cost of carbon emissions. GES Working Paper 140, London: HM Treasury. URL: <>.
Cline, W. R. 1992. The Economics of Global Warming. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.
Cline, W. R. 1998. Equity and discounting in climate-change decisions. In Economics and Policy Issues in Climate Change, ed. Nordhaus, W. D., 97104. New York, NY: Resources for the Future.
Cline, W. R. 2012. Intergenerational discounting and global economic policies. Remarks at the conference on 'Ethics and Globalization: Tradeoffs Behind Policy Choices', Washington, 7 January 2012, Peterson Institute for International Economics. URL: <>.
Dasgupta, P. 2001. Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dasgupta, P. 2005. Three conceptions of intergenerational justice. In Ramsey's Legacy, ed. Lillehammer, H. and Mellor, D. H., 149–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dasgupta, P. 2008. Discounting climate change. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 37: 141169.
Dasgupta, P. 2011. The ethics of intergenerational distribution: reply and response to John E. Roemer. Environmental and Resource Economics 50: 475493.
Dasgupta, P. 2012. Time and the generations. In Climate Change and Common Sense: Essays in Honor of Tom Schelling, ed. Hahn, R. and Ulph, A., 101130. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dasgupta, P. and Heal, G. M.. 1979. Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dasgupta, P., Sen, A. and Marglin, S.. 1972. Guidelines for Project Evaluation. New York, NY: United Nations.
Davidson, M. 2014. Zero discounting can compensate future generations for climate damage. Ecological Economics 105: 4047.
Dietz, S., Hepburn, C. and Stern, N.. 2009. Economics, ethics and elimate change. In Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen: Volume II: Society, Institutions, and Development, ed. Basu, K. and Kanbur, R., 365386. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dorfman, R. 1982. Comment. In Discounting for Time and Risk in Energy Policy, ed. Lind, R. C., 354358. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
Flanigan, T. n.d. On discount rates in the cost-benefit analysis of climate change. URL: <>. Accessed August 2016.
Foley, D., Rezai, A. and Taylor, L.. 2013. The social cost of carbon emissions: seven propositions. Economics Letters 121: 9097.
Gollier, C. and Hammitt, J. K.. 2014. The long-run discount rate controversy. Annual Review of Resource Economics 6: 273295.
Greaves, H. Forthcoming. Discounting for climate change: a critical survey. Economics and Philosophy.
Kaplow, L. and Weisbach, D.. 2011. Discount rates, social judgments, individuals’ risk preferences, and uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 42: 125143.
Kelleher, J. P. Forthcoming. Descriptive versus prescriptive discounting in climate change policy analysis. Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy.
Kolstad, C., Urama, K., Broome, J. et al. 2014. Social, economic and ethical concepts and methods. In Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. Edenhofer, O., Pichs-Madruga, R., Sokona, Y. et al., 207282. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Koopmans, T. C. 1965. On the concept of optimal economic growth. In The Econometric Approach to Development Planning. North-Holland Publ. Co. and Rand McNally (a reissue of Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum Scripta Varia, 28: 225300).
de La Grandville, O. 2009. Economic Growth: A Unified Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lind, R. C. 1982. A primer on the major issues relating to the discount rate for evaluating national energy options: In Discounting for Time and Risk in Energy Policy, ed. Lind, R. C., 2194. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
Moellendorf, D. 2014. The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nordhaus, W. D. 2007. A review of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Journal of Economic Literature XLV: 686–702.
Nordhaus, W. D. 2013. The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Quiggin, J. 2009. Stern and his critics on discounting and climate change: an editorial essay. Climatic Change 89: 195205.
Ramsey, P. 1928. A mathematical theory of saving. The Economic Journal 38: 543559.
Rawls, J. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Rawls, J. 1999. A Theory of Justice (revised edition). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Roser, D. 2009. The discount rate: a small number with a big impact. In Applied Ethics: Life, Environment and Society, ed. Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy, 1227. Sapporo: The Center for Applied Ethics and Philosophy, Hokkaido University.
Scheffler, S. 1994. The Rejection of Consequentialism (revised edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schelling, T. 1995. Intergenerational discounting. Energy Policy 23 (4/5): 395401.
Sen, A. 1977. On weights and measures: informational constraints in social welfare analysis. Econometrica 45 (7): 15391572.
Sen, A. 1982. Approaches to the choice of discount rates for social benefit-cost analysis. In Discounting for Time and Risk in Energy Policy, ed. Lind, R. C., 325353. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
Stern, N. 1977. The marginal valuation of income. In Proceedings of the Association of University Teachers of Economics, Edinburgh Meeting of April 1976, ed. Artis, M. J. and Nobay, A. R., 209258. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Stern, N. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Stern, N. 2010. The economics of climate change. In Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, ed. Gardiner, S., Caney, S., Jamieson, D. and Shue, H., 3976. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Woollard, F. 2012. Have we solved the non-identity problem? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (5): 677690.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Economics & Philosophy
  • ISSN: 0266-2671
  • EISSN: 1474-0028
  • URL: /core/journals/economics-and-philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed