Welfare-Consequentialism and Social PolicyBy Noel Semple1How much money should the state spend in the effort to improve individuals’ lives?How should it allocate its scarce resources among alternative policy areas and programs?What policy instruments should the state deploy to accomplish these goals? These arefoundational questions in the field of social policy. The goal of this paper is to suggest howwelfare-consequentialism might answer them. This article begins by describing welfareconsequentialism (a normative theory of public policy) and the social welfare function methodfor analyzing policy options. It then sketches a welfare-consequentialist approach to answeringthese three core questions of social policy.1 Welfare-ConsequentialismWelfare-consequentialism holds that the appropriate goal of all public policy is to makeindividuals’ lives better, for them.2 The best public policy option is always, therefore, the onethat can be expected to maximize aggregate welfare.3 One leading technique to operationalizewelfare-consequentialism is the social welfare function,4 developed most comprehensively inthe work of Matthew Adler.5 This is a tool designed to identify the best policy choice, byaggregating the projected lifetime welfare values of the individuals affected by it, under thealternative outcomes. A social welfare function assumes that the overall welfare of any1J.D., Ph.D. Associate Professor, University of Windsor Faculty of Law. www.noelsemple.caMatthew D. Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction (Forthcoming) (New York: Oxford University Press,2019); Amartya Sen, "Personal Utilities and Public Judgements: Or What's Wrong with Welfare Economics," TheEconomic Journal 89, no. 355 (1979), http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2231867; Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell,Fairness Versus Welfare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).3Ruut Veenhoven, "Greater Happiness for a Greater Number: Is That Possible or Desirable?," Journal of HappinessStudies 11, no. 5 (2010), http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10902-010-9204-z; Richard Layard, Happiness : Lessons from aNew Science (2d Ed.) (London: Penguin Books, 2011).4Cost-benefit analysis is another. See e.g. Cass Sunstein, The Cost-Benefit Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,2018).5E.g. Matthew D. Adler, Well-Being and Fair Distribution : Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2012); Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being andPublic Policy (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction, abovenote 2.2
2individual’s life can be represented by a single number, which can be compared to numbersrepresenting the overall welfare of other lives.6For example, suppose Frances, George, and Harriet survive a shipwreck and land on anuninhabited desert island. There is no prospect of rescue, but there is plenty of food and freshwater and the climate is mild. They therefore anticipate living on the island together for manyyears. These three survivors decide to create a welfare-consequentialist government, thedecisions of which will bind them all. Their first decision is where to build their camp: on thebeach, or on a nearby plateau. They agree that their decision on this question must bind all ofthem, because of the great advantages of living in proximity to each other.However, Frances, George, and Harriet each have different preferences and sensitivitiesthat are relevant to the question of where to live. The lifetime welfare of each will therefore beaffected in a different way by the decision about where to live. Frances enjoys the sounds ofthe waves on the beach and finds the plateau too windy. George and Harriet consider thebeach sand irritating, and they love the view from the plateau. They create two tables,comparing their aggregate welfare under the two alternative outcomes:6John Broome, "Quantities of Lifetime Wellbeing," in Weighing Lives (Oxford, UK: Oxford, 2004).
3Figure 1: Deciding Where to Make CampIf they make camp on the beach:Individual will have expectedlifetime welfare ofFrances8George3Harriet2Aggregation13(Sum):If they make camp on the plateau:Individual will have expectedlifetime welfare ofFrances3George4Harriet4Aggregation11(Sum):The premise of a social welfare function is that lifetime welfare numbers are cardinaland comparable, both between people and between outcomes.7 In other words, it can be saidthat, if the beach camp is chosen, Frances will have a better life than George, who will have abetter life than Harriet. George and Harriet would have better lives under the plateau-camppolicy than they would if the beach-camp policy is adopted.The numbers in Figure 1 represent expected lifetime welfare. This allows the socialwelfare function to accommodate uncertainty.8 Harriet’s lifetime welfare if the beach camp ischosen cannot be precisely predicted. It might depend, for example on factors such as whetherthere will be sand-flies there in the spring. If Harriet’s lifetime welfare in the beach-camp7Interpersonal welfare comparisons, although once controversial, are increasingly accepted within botheconomics and philosophy: Robert E. Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995), Richard Layard and Gus O’Donnell, "How to Make Policy When Happiness Is the Goal(World Happiness Report, 2015)," accessed June 9, 2019. 5 Sep15.pdf.8For a more sophisticated treatment of uncertainty, see Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction, abovenote 2 at Chapter 3, Section D.
4outcome would be 3 if there are no sand-flies, and 1 in there are sand-flies, and botheventualities are equally likely, then her expected welfare under this outcome is 2.9Utilitarianism is the oldest form of welfare-consequentialism. It holds that the moralvalue of an outcome is determined by simply adding up the numbers for the individualsaffected. If operating on utilitarian welfare-consequentialism, the government would decide tocreate camp on the beach. An alternative is the prioritarian social welfare function. This givesweight to equality as well as the maximization of welfare. Different prioritarian functionsreflect different degrees of aversion to inequality.10 Some prioritarian social welfare functionswould tell the castaways’ government to choose the second option (making camp on theplateau), because welfare is more evenly divided even though its sum is smaller.Regardless of whether the function is utilitarian or prioritarian, it is not the votes orchoices of the residents that make one policy option morally preferable to the other. Instead, itis the fact that aggregate welfare, under the chosen function, is higher under one than it isunder the other. Unlike self-interested voting, the social welfare function takes into accounthow large a difference a policy choice would make to each individual affected by it.1.1 Applications and Core CommitmentsThe social welfare function, or the closely related cost-benefit analysis approach, isoften applied to evaluate economic policies involving taxation and risk regulation.11 Forexample, banning a potentially dangerous chemical is considered a good policy if the positiveeffects of doing so on individuals’ welfare (e.g. better health and longer lives) can be expectedto exceed the negative effects on individuals’ welfare (e.g. lost jobs for those who manufacturethe chemical, and the removal of a market option for its consumers).129(0.5 x 3) (0.5 x 1) 2Adler, above note 8.11Sunstein, supra note 4, N. Gregory Mankiw, Matthew Weinzierl, and Danny Yagan, "Optimal Taxation in Theoryand Practice," The Journal of Economic Perspectives 23 (2009); Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction,above note 2.12Matthew D. Adler and Nicolas Treich, "Prioritarianism and Climate Change," Environ Resource Econ 62 ; Matthew D. Adler, "A Better Calculus for Regulators: From CostBenefit Analysis to the Social Welfare Function (Working Paper Ee 17-01 March 2017)," 10
5However, the approach can, in principle, be applied to any public policy question. Aproposed residential apartment building would be allowed in a low-density area, despiteneighbourhood opposition, if the welfare benefits of the development to prospective residents,local merchants, and other affected parties would outweigh the welfare losses to theneighbours and any other affected parties.13 A military intervention to depose a foreigndictator would be justified if the aggregate expected benefits to the dictator’s potential victims,and expected security benefits for individuals elsewhere, would outweigh welfare costs such asthe loss of life in combat and financial cost of the intervention.In cases such as military intervention, some welfare effects are experienced by a policymaker’s domestic constituents while others are experienced by foreigners. The policy-makermust decide whether and how to weigh welfare effects on foreigners within the social welfarefunction. Similar value judgments must be made regarding welfare effects on unbornindividuals, and on non-human animals.14As these examples illustrate, welfare-consequentialist policy analysis almost alwaysinvolves weighing some individuals’ welfare gains against other individuals’ welfare losses.15The approach is consequentialist insofar as it evaluates public policies with exclusive referenceto the difference those policies can be expected to make in the world.16 For a welfarist policymaker, “sins of omission” (failure to put in place policies which are very likely to produce strongnet welfare benefits) are just as serious as “sins of commission”.17 Scholars in this school havedeveloped sophisticated treatments of uncertainty,18 and of policy choices which change the13More precisely, the permitted height and shape of the building would be chosen to maximize overall welfaregains from the project.14John Broome, "The Well-Being of Future Generations," in The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy,ed. Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016); Olof Johansson-Stenman,"Animal Welfare and Social Decisions: Is It Time to Take Bentham Seriously?," Ecological Economics 145 8.019.15Pareto-optimal policy moves, that can make someone better off without making anyone worse off in any way,are very seldom possible for a government.16Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), location 993[Kindle Edition].17Peter Singer, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress, 2016).18John C. Harsanyi, "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility," Journal ofPolitical Economy 63 (1955), Adler, “A Better Calculus for Regulators.”
6number of individuals who will live in the future.19 Normative individualism is another premiseof welfare-consequentialism. Individuals, not communities or other aggregations, are theentities whose welfare should matter to policy-makers.20 This is not, of course, to deny thatsocial groups have powerful instrumentally effects in making individuals’ lives better or worse.1.2 Defining and Measuring Individual WelfareWelfare-consequentialists can take different approaches to defining and measuringindividual welfare. Briefly, objective good accounts emphasize verifiable facts aboutindividuals’ lives (e.g. lifespan or education) in order to compare the quality of those lives.21Preferentist accounts define the good life in terms of the extent to which the individual’spreferences are realized.22 Mental state accounts ground welfare quantifications in howindividuals feel or what they think. Mental state accounts can be hedonic (focused onindividuals’ pains and pleasures), or evaluative (relying on an individual’s evaluation of his orher own life to indicate his or her welfare).23An evaluative mental state account of welfare underlies the increasingly influential lifeevaluation surveys, and the policy recommendations that are based on them. Respondents areasked a question such as: “all things considered, how satisfied would you say you are with yourlife these days?” They are asked to respond with a number, usually ranging from 0 (completelydissatisfied or unhappy) to 10 (completely satisfied or happy). Comparing respondents’ lifeevaluation scores with their circumstances has produced robust findings about what makespeople give higher or lower numbers.2419Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe : Sidgwick and ContemporaryEthics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Broome, in The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy,above note 14.20L. W. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (New York Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 215.21Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford, 2001); Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, above note16.22Jonathan Baron, Morality and Rational Choice (Amsterdam: Springer Netherlands, 1993); Chris Heathwood,"Desire-Fulfillment Theory," in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being, ed. Guy Fletcher (New York:Routledge, 2016).23Blends of these approaches are also possible.24Ruut Veenhoven, "Correlates of Happiness (World Database of Happiness)," accessed June 9, 2019.http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl/hap cor/cor fp.htm.
7The increasingly widespread use of life-evaluation surveys has supported welfareconsequentialist policy-making. It has been suggested that maximizing the aggregate scoresthat people give to their lives on life-evaluation surveys should be the primary goal ofgovernment. 25 Life-evaluation scores, as a universal yardstick of policy success, are attractiveto many beca