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The Historical Perspective of the Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility


  • Drakopoulos, Stavros A.


The starting-point of the article is the inconsistency between the established practice of acceptance in many cases, of economic policy (i.e. progressive taxation, national insurance policies) and the theoretical rejection of interpersonal comparisons of utility who see it as an unscientific value judgement. The inconsistency is explained by identifying three groups of theorists: (1) those who thought of comparability as a value judgement and unacceptable for economic policy considerations (positivists), (2) those who agreed with the positivists, on the normative nature of comparability but accepted it as a basis for economic policy, and (3) those who thought of it as part of a scientific economics. The implication was that, despite the dominance of positivist methodology in other sub-fields, the historical experience points to the difficulty of applying positivist methodology to the issue of comparability. If the inconsistency is thus due to the inappropriateness of the positivist approach, the only possible solution is the explicit abandonment of this approach at least in matters related to the collective aspects of economics.

Suggested Citation

  • Drakopoulos, Stavros A., 1989. "The Historical Perspective of the Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility," MPRA Paper 28996, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  • Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:28996

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Dan Usher, 1973. "The Measurement of Economic Growth," Working Papers 145, Queen's University, Department of Economics.
    2. John C. Harsanyi, 1955. "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 63, pages 309-309.
    3. Simon, Julian L, 1974. "Interpersonal Welfare Comparisons Can be Made-and Used for Redistribution Decisions," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 27(1), pages 63-98.
    4. George J. Stigler, 1950. "The Development of Utility Theory. II," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 58, pages 373-373.
    5. Hammond, Peter J., 1977. "Dual interpersonal comparisons of utility and the welfare economics of income distribution," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(1), pages 51-71, February.
    6. Cooter, Robert & Rappoport, Peter, 1984. "Were the Ordinalists Wrong about Welfare Economics?," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 22(2), pages 507-530, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Drakopoulos, S. A., 1997. "Origins and Development of the Trend Toward Value-Free Economics," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Cambridge University Press, vol. 19(02), pages 286-300, September.
    2. Seth D. Baum, 2012. "Value Typology in Cost-Benefit Analysis," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 21(4), pages 499-524, November.

    More about this item


    History of Economics; Welfare Economics;

    JEL classification:

    • B00 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - General - - - History of Economic Thought, Methodology, and Heterodox Approaches
    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General


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