718.01 Social Choice Theory: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Beyond


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 book Measuring Social Welfare: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019) will serve as the main text 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 short (1 page) reaction papers each week; and to participate in class discussion. Students will also write a 10-page final analytical (not research) paper.  This final paper can either be (a) a critical discussion of one or more chapters from Measuring Social Welfare, or (b) a critical discussion of some other book or article relevant to the topics of the seminar.

Spring 2022

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-Sp22
Email list: LAW-718-01-Sp22@sakai.duke.edu
Degree Requirements
Course Requirements - JD
Course Requirements - LLM
Course Areas of Practice