Utilitarianism with and without expected utility

Journal of Mathematical Economics 87:77-113 (2020)
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Abstract

We give two social aggregation theorems under conditions of risk, one for constant population cases, the other an extension to variable populations. Intra and interpersonal welfare comparisons are encoded in a single ‘individual preorder’. The theorems give axioms that uniquely determine a social preorder in terms of this individual preorder. The social preorders described by these theorems have features that may be considered characteristic of Harsanyi-style utilitarianism, such as indifference to ex ante and ex post equality. However, the theorems are also consistent with the rejection of all of the expected utility axioms, completeness, continuity, and independence, at both the individual and social levels. In that sense, expected utility is inessential to Harsanyi-style utilitarianism. In fact, the variable population theorem imposes only a mild constraint on the individual preorder, while the constant population theorem imposes no constraint at all. We then derive further results under the assumption of our basic axioms. First, the individual preorder satisfies the main expected utility axiom of strong independence if and only if the social preorder has a vector-valued expected total utility representation, covering Harsanyi’s utilitarian theorem as a special case. Second, stronger utilitarian-friendly assumptions, like Pareto or strong separability, are essentially equivalent to strong independence. Third, if the individual preorder satisfies a ‘local expected utility’ condition popular in non-expected utility theory, then the social preorder has a ‘local expected total utility’ representation. Fourth, a wide range of non-expected utility theories nevertheless lead to social preorders of outcomes that have been seen as canonically egalitarian, such as rank-dependent social preorders. Although our aggregation theorems are stated under conditions of risk, they are valid in more general frameworks for representing uncertainty or ambiguity.

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Author Profiles

David McCarthy
University of Hong Kong
Kalle M. Mikkola
Aalto University
Teruji Thomas
Oxford University

Citations of this work

Risk Attitudes and Social Choice.Simon Blessenohl - 2020 - Ethics 130 (4):485-513.
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Unbounded Utility.Zachary Goodsell - 2023 - Dissertation, University of Southern California

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References found in this work

Reasons and Persons.Derek Parfit - 1984 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Risk and Rationality.Lara Buchak - 2013 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Weighing lives.John Broome - 2004 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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