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Fairness versus Welfare

Fairness versus Welfare

Louis Kaplow, Steven Shavell

ISBN 9780674023642

Publication date: 09/01/2006

By what criteria should public policy be evaluated? Fairness and justice? Or the welfare of individuals? Debate over this fundamental question has spanned the ages.

Fairness versus Welfare poses a bold challenge to contemporary moral philosophy by showing that most moral principles conflict more sharply with welfare than is generally recognized. In particular, the authors demonstrate that all principles that are not based exclusively on welfare will sometimes favor policies under which literally everyone would be worse off. The book draws on the work of moral philosophers, economists, evolutionary and cognitive psychologists, and legal academics to scrutinize a number of particular subjects that have engaged legal scholars and moral philosophers.

How can the deeply problematic nature of all nonwelfarist principles be reconciled with our moral instincts and intuitions that support them? The authors offer a fascinating explanation of the origins of our moral instincts and intuitions, developing ideas originally advanced by Hume and Sidgwick and more recently explored by psychologists and evolutionary theorists. Their analysis indicates that most moral principles that seem appealing, upon examination, have a functional explanation, one that does not justify their being accorded independent weight in the assessment of public policy.

Fairness versus Welfare has profound implications for the theory and practice of policy analysis and has already generated considerable debate in academia.


  • Patient, thorough, unfailingly lucid, the authors take apart, brick by brick, the edifice of the dominant school of modern moral and legal philosophy with its insistence that social policy as well as personal decision making be based on notions of fairness, right, and justice distinct from utility or welfare. They show that human welfare is a far better criterion, and that philosophers' (and many policy makers') fairness notions, rather than simply lying along a different track from welfare, would if implemented diminish it. They seek to reinterpret fairness, in line with its social and psychological roots, as compatible with rather than contradicting welfare. Their close and compelling engagement with the arguments of their opponents makes this a book that philosophers as well as policy analysts will find difficult to refute and impossible to ignore.

    —Richard A. Posner


  • Louis Kaplow is Caspersen and Household International Professor of Law and Economics at Harvard Law School.
  • Steven Shavell is Samuel R. Rosenthal Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Book Details

  • 576 pages
  • 1-1/8 x 6-3/8 x 10 inches
  • Harvard University Press