Social Choice and Welfare

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 193–198 | Cite as

The meaning of “fundamental preferences”

  • S. -C. Kolm


We present the definition and meaning of “fundamental preferences” that are interpersonally comparable, ordinal and endemonistic. We also dispel a number of misunderstandings concerning them. In the article “A cause of preference is not on object of preference” (Soc Choice Welfare (1993) 10: 57–68), Professor Broome misinterprets the notion of “fundamental preferences” in confusing an observer's device for a psychological transformation of the observed (as if an economist studying wealth meant that he becomes wealthy, or if physicians had to be sick — this is well shown in his interpretation of a sentence of mine in p 65 where the crucial switch to the first person is his own). Considering a new set of variables that includes both structural parameters and former variables, hence variables of different kinds, assumes nothing new concerning the observed object; namely, it says neither that the consumption of bread becomes “a cause” of the taste for jam, nor that the individual likes (or dislikes) his own tastes, or anything like this (the accusation of “fantasy”). We shall suggest that certain other views receive a similar treatment in this paper. This misunderstanding is regrettable, since the consideration of fundamental preferences is unavoidable in social ethics, both when one has to compare all-encompassing individual situations, and for the preferences of the hypothetical identical individuals in an Original Position device where they evaluate at once what they might have and what they might be1.

Therefore, perhaps the full argument must be stated again (see the works in references). To begin with, we should face the issue relevant for social ethics directly, rather than dealing with it in devious ways. The question arises if: (1) distributive justice is a question (he who says it is not wants to impose his own view of it), (2) individual happiness has any relevance for the quality of society (imagine a society of despaired people). Then, one can show that the relevant issue turns out to be: can one say that a person is happier than another? These persons are in specific situations.

  1. 1.

    I wish to thank Professor Broome for comments on an earlier version of this note.


Specific Situation Original Position Distributive Justice Similar Treatment Relevant Issue 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • S. -C. Kolm
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Advanced Studies in the Social SciencesParisFrance

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