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Are interpersonal comparisons of utility indeterminate?

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Keywords
  • H Social Sciences (General)
Disciplines
  • Economics
  • Linguistics

Abstract

On the orthodox view in economics, interpersonal comparisons of utility are not empirically meaningful, and "hence" impossible. To reassess this view, this paper draws on the parallels between the problem of interpersonal comparisons of utility and the problem of translation of linguistic meaning, as explored by Quine. I discuss several cases of what the empirical evidence for interpersonal comparisons of utility might be and show that, even on the strongest of these, interpersonal comparisons are empirically underdetermined and, if we also deny any appropriate truth of the matter, indeterminate. However, the underdetermination can be broken non-arbitrarily (though not purely empirically) if (i) we assign normative significance to certain states of affairs or (ii) we posit a fixed connection between certain empirically observable proxies and utility. I conclude that, even if interpersonal comparisons are not empirically meaningful, they are not in principle impossible.

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