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The ignorant observer

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Abstract

Most prominent models of economic justice (and especially those proposed by Harsanyi and Rawls) are based on the assumption that impartiality is required for making moral decisions. However, although Harsanyi and Rawls agree on that, and furthermore agree on the fact that impartiality can be obtained under appropriate conditions of ignorance, they strongly disagree on the consequences of these assumptions. According to Harsanyi, they provide a justification for the utilitarian doctrine, whereas Rawls considers that they imply egalitarianism. We propose here an extension of Harsanyi's Impartial Observer Theorem, that is based on the representation of ignorance as the set of all possible probability distributions. We obtain a characterization of the observer's preferences that, under our most restrictive conditions, is a linear combination of Harsanyi's and Rawls' criteria. Furthermore, this representation is ethically meaningful, in the sense that individuals' utilities are cardinally measurable and unit comparable. This allows us to conclude that the impartiality requirement cannot be used to decide between Rawls' and Harsanyi's positions. Finally, we defend the view that a (strict) combination of Harsanyi's and Rawls' criteria provides a reasonable rule for social decisions.

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File URL: ftp://mse.univ-paris1.fr/pub/mse/cahiers2006/V06041.pdf
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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Université Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris 1) in its series Cahiers de la Maison des Sciences Economiques with number v06041.

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Length: 37 pages
Date of creation: Feb 2005
Date of revision: Mar 2006
Handle: RePEc:mse:wpsorb:v06041

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Keywords: Impartiality; justice; decision under ignorance.;

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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Marc Fleurbaey & Stéphane Zuber, 2013. "Inequality aversion and separability in social risk evaluation," Economic Theory, Springer, vol. 54(3), pages 675-692, November.
  2. Eckert, Daniel & Klamler, Christian, 2010. "An equity-efficiency trade-off in a geometric approach to committee selection," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 26(3), pages 386-391, September.
  3. Grant, Simon & Kajii, Atsushi & Polak, Ben & Safra, Zvi, 2012. "Equally-distributed equivalent utility, ex post egalitarianism and utilitarianism," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 147(4), pages 1545-1571.

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