What was fair in actuarial fairness?

History of the Human Sciences 33 (2):91-114 (2020)
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Abstract

In actuarial parlance, the price of an insurance policy is considered fair if customers bearing the same risk are charged the same price. The estimate of this fair amount hinges on the expected value obtained by weighting the different claims by their probability. We argue that, historically, this concept of actuarial fairness originates in an Aristotelian principle of justice in exchange. We will examine how this principle was formalized in the 16th century and shaped in life insurance during the following two hundred years, in two different interpretations. The Domatian account of actuarial fairness relied on subjective uncertainty: An agreement on risk was fair if both parties were equally ignorant about the chances of an uncertain event. The objectivist version grounded any agreement on an objective risk estimate drawn from a mortality table. We will show how the objectivist approach collapsed in the market for life annuities during the 18th century, leaving open the question of why we still speak of actuarial fairness as if it were an objective expected value.

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