At the next Perspectives on Science seminar on Tuesday 9.3., Jack Vromen (Erasmus University Rotterdam) will give a presentation titled “Just how unobjectionable is the Pareto principle?”. The seminar takes place in Zoom from 3 to 5 pm.
Perspectives on Science is a weekly research seminar which brings together experts from science studies and philosophy of science. It is organized by TINT – Centre for Philosophy of Social Science at the University of Helsinki. More information about the seminar here.
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The Pareto principle (roughly, the principle that social state B is to be preferred to A if some are better off in B than in A and no one is worse off in B than in A) seems to be generally and routinely accepted by economists without further justification. Economists grant that the principle is weak, in the sense that it applies to only a small subset of comparisons of social states, but almost never seem to call its acceptability in question. Indeed, some economists even state that they cannot see how anyone could possibly object to the Pareto principle. In the paper I argue that reasonable objections, related for example to distributional concerns, can be made to the principle. I first note that that the principle is treacherously simple: it can (and has actually been) interpreted, used and applied in various ways. I then point out that if we confine our attention to how welfare economists standardly interpret and use the principle, the principle can do justice to distributional concerns. Yet I also argue that there are limits to this. Strictly speaking, the Pareto principle implies that no external (“extra-welfarist”) concern can possibly override social welfare changes (as defined by the principle), no matter how weighty the external concern and how small the welfare changes. In principle, such extreme implications can be avoided by generalizing the Pareto principle. But the price to be paid for such a generalization is that the principle becomes even weaker in the sense that it applies to an even smaller set of comparisons of social states.
Jack Vromen is professor of philosophy at the Erasmus School of Philosophy and Director of the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE, both at Erasmus University Rotterdam). He co-edits with N. Emrah Aydinonat the Journal of Economic Methodology. His research is at the intersection of economics and philosophy, with special attention to foundations of evolutionary economics, new institutional economics and neuroeconomics. More recently his research focuses on social preferences, on what they are, how they could have evolved, what might motivate them and whether their satisfaction should be included in welfare evaluations.