718.01 Social Choice Theory

Social choice theory is the systematic study of how to combine individual preferences, or some other indicator 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 essential for thinking clearly about collective choice and, in particular, social welfare functions and cost-benefit analysis.

My two books, Well-Being and Fair Distribution: Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis (Oxford University Press 2012), and Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) will serve as the main texts for the course, with additional readings from philosophy, economics, and law.  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 (1-2 page) reaction paper; and to participate in class discussion. Students will also write a 10-page final paper.  This final paper can either be (a) a critical discussion of one or more chapters from Well-Being and Fair Distribution or Measuring Social Welfare, or (b) a critical discussion of some other book or article relevant to the topics of the seminar.

A limited number of students will be permitted to expand this paper in substance and in length in order to meet the JD-ULWR.


Special Notes:

* New name*

Spring 2018

Course Number Course Credits Evaluation Method Instructor
Course Credits
Reflective Writing
Research and/or analytical paper(s), 10-15 pages
Class participation
Matthew Adler
Sakai site: https://sakai.duke.edu/portal/site/LAW.718.01.Sp18
Email list: LAW.718.01.Sp18@sakai.duke.edu
Degree Requirements
Course Requirements - JD
Course Requirements - LLM
Course Areas of Practice