Utility, informed preference, or happiness: Following Harsanyi's argument to its logical conclusion

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Harsanyi (1997) argues that, for normative issues, informed preferences should be used, instead of actual preferences or happiness (or welfare). Following his argument allowing him to move from actual to informed preferences to its logical conclusion forces us to use happiness instead. Where informed preferences differ from happiness due to a pure concern for the welfare of others, using the former involves multiple counting. This "concerning effect" (non-affective altruism) differs from and could be on top of the "minding effect" (affective altruism) of being happy seeing or helping others to be happy. The concerning/minding effect should be excluded/included in social decision. Non-affective altruism is shown to exist in a compelling hypothetical example. Just as actual preferences should be discounted due to the effects of ignorance and spurious preferences, informed preferences should also be discounted due to some inborn or acquired tendencies to be irrational, such as placing insufficient weights on the welfare of the future, maximizing our biological fitness instead of our welfare. Harsanyi's old result on utilitarianism is however defended against criticisms in the last decade. Harsanyi (1997) argues, among other things, that in welfare economics and ethics, what are important are people's informed preferences, rather than either their actual preferences (as emphasized by modern economists) or their happiness (as emphasized by early utilitarians). The main purpose of this paper is to argue that, pursuing Harsanyi's argument that allows him to move from actual to informed preferences to its logical conclusion forces us to happiness as the ultimately important thing. The early utilitarians were right after all! Since I personally approve of Harsanyi's basic argument, I regard myself as his follower who becomes more Catholic than the Pope. (It is not denied that, in practice, the practical difficulties and undesirable side-effects of the procedure of using happiness instead of preferences have to be taken into account. Thus, even if we ultimately wish to maximize the aggregate happiness of people, it may be best in practice to maximize their aggregate preferences in most instances. This important consideration will be largely ignored in this paper.) The secondary objective is to give a brief defence of Harsanyi's (1953, 1955) much earlier argument for utilitarianism (social welfare as a sum of individual utilities) that has received some criticisms in the last decade. The argument (e.g. Roemer 1996) that Harsanyi's result is irrelevant to utilitarianism is based on the point that the VNM (von Neumann-Morgenstern) utility is unrelated to the subjective and interpersonally comparable cardinal utility needed for a social welfare function. Harsanyi's position is defended by showing that the two types of utility are the same (apart from an indeterminate zero point for the former that is irrelevant for utilitarianism concerning the same set of people).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-216
Number of pages20
JournalSocial Choice and Welfare
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1999

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