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Back to Bentham? A discussion on the optimal distribution of wellbeing

12 February 2021

Michael Plant provides a brief overview of the main approaches to aggregating individual advantage – utilitarianism, egalitarianism, prioritarianism, and leximin.

Social scientists are not very familiar with this literature, even though you cannot use subjective wellbeing measures without (implicitly) making a choice.

The use of subjective wellbeing measures is implicitly utilitarian: the best outcome is the one that maximises the (unweighted) sum of subjective wellbeing, i.e. gives the highest average. However, there is a growing interest in the inequality of wellbeing.

Layard (2020) argues for a prioritarian approach which gives more weight to the worse off. There are also well-developed debates in moral philosophy about value aggregation (sometimes referred to as distributive ethics or distributive justice). For example, Rawl’s critique that utilitarianism ignores the separateness of persons.