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Interpersonal Comparisons of the Good: Epistemic not Impossible


To evaluate the overall good/welfare of any action, policy or institutional choice we need some way of comparing the benefits and losses to those affected: we need to make interpersonal comparisons of the good/welfare. Yet sceptics have worried either: (1) that such comparisons are impossible as they involve an impossible introspection across individuals, getting ‘into their minds’; (2) that they are indeterminate as individual-level information is compatible with a range of welfare numbers; or (3) that they are metaphysically mysterious as they assume the existence either of a social mind or of absolute levels of welfare when no such things exist. This article argues that such scepticism can potentially be addressed if we view the problem of interpersonal comparisons as fundamentally an epistemic problem – that is, as a problem of forming justified beliefs about the overall good based on evidence of the individual good.

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John Harsanyi , ‘Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility’, The Journal of Political Economy 63 (1955), pp. 309–21, at 317

Peter Singer , Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1993)

Peter Hammond , ‘Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility: Why and How They Are and Should Be Made’, Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being, ed. Jon Elster and John Roemer (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 200–54, at 201

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
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