Research in Engineering Design

, Volume 16, Issue 1–2, pp 42–56 | Cite as

Arrow’s theorem, multi-criteria decision problems and multi-attribute preferences in engineering design

  • Maarten Franssen
Original Papers


Arrow’s theorem poses limits to the translation of the different preference orders on a set of options into a single preference order. In this paper, I argue, against opinions to the contrary, that Arrow’s theorem applies fully to multi-criteria decision problems as they occur in engineering design, making solution methods to such problems subject to the theorem’s negative result. Discussing the meaning and consequences for engineering design, I review the solution methods to such problems presented in the engineering design literature in the light of the theorem. It appears that underlying such methods is a mix-up of two fundamentally different problem definitions, as the theory of multi-attribute preferences, which is often presented as an adequate approach for engineering design, in fact fails to address the Arrowian multi-criteria problem. Finally, I suggest ways how engineering design might adopt results from discussions of Arrow’s theorem elsewhere in resolving its multi-criteria decision problems.


Multi-criteria decision-making Arrow’s theorem Multi-attribute preference theory Evaluation methods 



I express my gratitude to Louis Bucciarelli, Peter Kroes, Ibo van de Poel, Jeroen de Ridder, Michiel Brumsen, Sabine Roeser en Martin Peterson for their comments on the earlier versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Section of Philosophy, Faculty of Technology, Policy and ManagementDelft University of TechnologyGA DelftThe Netherlands

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