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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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  • Thibault Gajdos & Feriel Kandil, 2005. "The ignorant observer," Cahiers de la Maison des Sciences Economiques v06041, Université Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris 1), revised Mar 2006.
  • Handle: RePEc:mse:wpsorb:v06041
    DOI: 10.1007/s00355-007-0274-8
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    Cited by:

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    2. Michael Moehler, 2013. "Contractarian ethics and Harsanyi’s two justifications of utilitarianism," Politics, Philosophy & Economics, , vol. 12(1), pages 24-47, February.
    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.
    4. Marc Fleurbaey & Stéphane Zuber, 2013. "Inequality aversion and separability in social risk evaluation," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 54(3), pages 675-692, November.
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    6. 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.
    7. Berens, Stefan & Chochua, Lasha, 2017. "The impartial observer under uncertainty," Center for Mathematical Economics Working Papers 576, Center for Mathematical Economics, Bielefeld University.
    8. Marc Fleurbaey, 2018. "Welfare economics, risk and uncertainty," Canadian Journal of Economics/Revue canadienne d'économique, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 51(1), pages 5-40, February.
    9. Feriel Kandil, 2018. "Ricœur, Rawls and the Aporia of the Just," Working Papers halshs-01945697, HAL.
    10. Christopher Bennett & Ričardas Zitikis, 2015. "Ignorance, lotteries, and measures of economic inequality," The Journal of Economic Inequality, Springer;Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, vol. 13(2), pages 309-316, June.

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    More about this item

    Keywords

    Impartiality; justice; decision under ignorance;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty

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