Ethics 131 (3):571-599 (2021)

Jake Nebel
University of Southern California
Matthew Adler's Measuring Social Welfare is an introduction to the social welfare function (SWF) methodology. This essay questions some ideas at the core of the SWF methodology having to do with the relation between the SWF and the measure of well-being. The facts about individual well-being do not single out a particular scale on which well-being must be measured. As with physical quantities, there are multiple scales that can be used to represent the same information about well-being; no one scale is special. Like physical laws, the SWF and its ranking of distributions cannot depend on exactly which of these scales we use. Adler and other theorists in the SWF tradition have used this idea to derive highly restrictive constraints on the shape of the SWF. These constraints rule out seemingly plausible views about distributive justice and population ethics. I argue, however, that these constraints stem from a simple but instructive mistake. The SWF should not be applied to vectors of numbers such as 1 and 2, but rather to vectors of dimensioned quantities such as 1 util and 2 utils. This seemingly pedantic suggestion turns out to have far-reaching consequences. Unlike the orthodox SWF approach, treating welfare levels as dimensioned quantities lets us distinguish between real changes in well-being and mere changes in the unit of measurement. It does this without making the SWF depend on the scale on which welfare is measured, and in a way that avoids the restrictive constraints on the shape of the SWF.
Keywords social welfare  prioritarianism  utility  measure of well-being  information invariance
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1086/712578
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

 PhilArchive page | Other versions
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Aggregation Without Interpersonal Comparisons of Well‐Being.Jacob M. Nebel - forthcoming - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
Ethics Without Numbers.Jacob M. Nebel - forthcoming - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Measurement Scales and Welfarist Social Choice.Michael Morreau & John A. Weymark - 2016 - Journal of Mathematical Psychology 75:127-136.
Prioritarianism and Population Ethics.Nils Holtug - 2012 - Iride: Filosofia e Discussione Pubblica 25 (1):45-56.
Prioritarianism and the Measure of Utility.Michael Otsuka - 2015 - Journal of Political Philosophy 23 (1):1-22.
Prioritarianism, Levelling Down and Welfare Diffusion.Ingmar Persson - 2011 - Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 14 (3):307-311.
Can Welfare Be Measured with a Preference-Satisfaction Index?Willem van der Deijl - 2018 - Journal of Economic Methodology 25 (2):126-142.
Equality-Tempered Prioritarianism.Dale Dorsey - 2014 - Politics, Philosophy and Economics 13 (1):45-61.
Future Generations: A Prioritarian View.Matthew Adler - 2009 - George Washington Law Review 77:1478-1520.
Multidimensional Welfare Aggregation.Christian List - 2004 - Public Choice 119:119-142.
Prioritarianism and Welfare Reductions.Ingmar Persson - 2012 - Journal of Applied Philosophy 29 (3):289-301.
Prioritarianism and Welfare Reductions.Ingmar Persson - 2012 - Journal of Applied Philosophy 29 (4):289-301.


Added to PP index

Total views
1,044 ( #5,878 of 2,507,560 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
204 ( #2,667 of 2,507,560 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes