Curriculum

Collective Decisions and Individual Well-Being: An Introduction to Social Choice Theory

Social choice theory is the systematic study of how to synthesize individual preferences, or some other measure of individual well-being, into a collective ranking. Although scholars have worried about this problem for centuries, most intellectual progress in social choice theory has occurred in the last century—with Arrow’s stunning “impossibility theorem,” and the development of the notion of the “social welfare function.” This latter construct serves as the foundation for many disciplines within economics (such as optimal tax theory or the economics of climate change). It also provides a rigorous and comprehensive framework for thinking about cost-benefit analysis—currently the dominant policy tool in the U.S. government.

This course will provide an introduction to social choice theory, with a particular focus on the social welfare function and on cost-benefit analysis. In the course of addressing these topics, we will also spend substantial time discussing the philosophical literatures on well-being and on inequality. What is the connection between someone’s well-being and her preferences, her happiness, or her realization of various “objective goods”? And—on any conception of well-being—how should we structure policy choice to take account of the distribution of individual welfare? Addressing these questions is critical for thinking clearly about collective choice and, in particular, social welfare functions and cost-benefit analysis.

My book, Well-Being and Fair Distribution: Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis (Oxford University Press 2012), will serve as a kind of textbook for the course, with additional secondary readings from philosophy, economics, and the social choice literature. The course does not require advanced mathematics. However, students should not be “math phobic”. The readings and our discussion will use some mathematical notation to communicate key ideas—as does, of course, any economics text on cost-benefit analysis--and students should not be afraid of seeing this notation. Students should also be prepared to engage in philosophical discussion.

The course will be taught as a 2-hour weekly seminar. Students will be asked to do the reading for each seminar; to write a short (one page or less) reaction paper; and to participate in class discussion. Students will also write a 20-page paper. First drafts of these papers will be due towards the end of the term. I will then meet with students individually to discuss their drafts, and final drafts will be due at the end of exam period. A somewhat longer paper (25 -30 pages) will satisfy the upper-level writing requirement.


Please note that course organization and content may vary substantially from semester to semester and descriptions are not necessarily professor specific. Please contact the instructor directly if you have particular course-related questions.

Prerequisite Information

(1) A good high school mathematics curriculum through basic differential calculus. (2) An undergraduate course in basic microeconomics. (3) An undergraduate course in philosophy (one course on any topic). These prerequisites may be waived with permission

Sections/Instructors

Matthew Adler
Collective Decisions and Individual Well-Being: An Introduction to Social Choice Theory 718.01
Spring 2015

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