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Utilitarianism with and without expected utility

David McCarthy, Kalle Mikkola and Teruji Thomas

Journal of Mathematical Economics, 2020, vol. 87, issue C, 77-113

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.

Keywords: Harsanyi; Utilitarianism; Expected and non-expected utility; Incompleteness and discontinuity; Uncertainty; Variable populations (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2020
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DOI: 10.1016/j.jmateco.2020.01.001

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