Philosophical Studies

, Volume 174, Issue 9, pp 2227–2250 | Cite as

Hard cases of comparison

  • Michael MesserliEmail author
  • Kevin Reuter


In hard cases of comparison, people are faced with two options neither of which is conceived of as better, worse, or equally good compared to the other. Most philosophers claim that hard cases (1) can indeed be distinguished from cases in which two options are equally good, and (2) can be characterized by a failure of transitive reasoning. It is a much more controversial matter and at the heart of an ongoing debate, whether the options in hard cases of comparison should be interpreted as incomparable, on par, or roughly equal. So far, however, none of these claims and interpretations have been tested. This paper presents the first empirical investigation on hard cases, intransitive reasoning, and incomparability. Our results reveal that hard cases present real-world dilemmas in which a significant majority of people violate transitivity. After suggesting a way of operationalizing the notion of incomparability, we provide empirical evidence that the options in some hard cases are not considered to be incomparable. Theories of rough equality or parity seem to provide better interpretations of our results.


Hard cases Incomparability Small-improvement argument Transitivity Intransitivity Operationalization Empirical studies 



We would like to thank Claus Beisbart, Monika Betzler, Georg Brun, Hans Rott, Stephan Sellmaier, and Jan Walker for their support and comments on previous drafts of the article. The paper was presented at conferences in Bern and Reading. We thank the audiences for their valuable feedback.


  1. Anderson, E. (1997). Practical reason and incommensurable goods. In R. Chang (Ed.), Incommensurability, incomparability, and practical reason (pp. 90–109). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Andreou, C. (2011). Choosing well: Value pluralism and patterns of choice. In T. Brooks (Ed.), New waves in ethics (pp. 48–63). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andreou, C. (2015). Parity, comparability, and choice. Journal of Philosophy, 112(1), 5–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boot, M. (2007). Incommensurability, Incomplete Comparability and the Scales of Justice. Dissertation, University of Oxford.Google Scholar
  5. Boot, M. (2009). Parity, incomparability and rationally justified choice. Philosophical Studies, 146(1), 75–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bridges, D., & Mehta, G. (2013). Representations of preferences orderings. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  7. Carlson, E. (2011). The small-improvement argument rescued. The Philosophical Quarterly, 61(242), 171–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chang, R. (1997). Introduction. In R. Chang (Ed.), Incommensurability, incomparability, and practical reason (pp. 1–34). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chang, R. (2002a). The possibility of parity. Ethics, 112(4), 659–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chang, R. (2002b). Making comparisons count. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Chang, R. (2012). Are hard choices cases of incomparability? Philosophical Issues, 22(1), 106–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chang, R. (2014). The existentialist of hard choices. (Interview by Richard Marshall with Ruth Chang). 3: AM Magazine.
  13. Constantinescu, C. (2012). Value incomparability and indeterminacy. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 15(1), 57–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. D’Agostino, F. (2003). Incommensurability and commensuration. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  15. De Jonge, J. (2012). Rethinking rational choice theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. De Sousa, R. (1974). The good and the true. Mind, 83(332), 534–551.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Espinoza, N. (2008). The small improvement argument. Synthese, 165(1), 127–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gert, J. (2004). Value and parity. Ethics, 114(3), 492–510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Griffin, J. (1997). Incommensurability: What’s the problem? In R. Chang (Ed.), Incommensurability, incomparability, and practical reason (pp. 35–51). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Griffin, J. (1998). Value judgement: Improving our ethical beliefs. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gustafsson, J. (2013). Indeterminacy and the small-improvement argument. Utilitas, 25(4), 433–445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gustafsson, J., & Espinoza, N. (2010). Conflicting reasons in the small-improvement argument. The Philosophical Quarterly, 60(241), 754–763.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hsieh, N. (2005). Equality, clumpiness and incomparability. Utilitas, 17(2), 180–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jensen, K. (2011). A philosophical assessment of decision theory. In S. Röser (Ed.), Handbook of risk theory (pp. 405–439). Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  25. Machery, E., Mallon, R., Nichols, S., & Stich, S. P. (2004). Semantics, cross-cultural style. Cognition, 92(3), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Parfit, D. (1986). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Raz, J. (1986). The morality of freedom. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  28. Rabinowicz, W. (2008). Value relations. Theoria, 74(1), 18–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Regan, D. (1997). Value, comparability, and choice. In R. Chang (Ed.), Incommensurability, incomparability, and practical reason (pp. 129–150). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Resnik, M. (1990). Choices an introduction to decision theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  31. Reuter, K., & Messerli, M. (2016). How not to characterize a hard choice (Unpublished manuscript).Google Scholar
  32. Savage, L. (1954). The foundations of statistics. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  33. Schaber, P. (1994). Sind alle Werte vergleichbar? Kosten-Nutzen-Analyse und das Inkommensurabilitätsproblem. Analyse und Kritik, 16(2), 153–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sepielli, A. (2009). What to do when you don’t know what to do. Oxford studies in metaethics, 4, 5–28.Google Scholar
  35. Swain, S., Alexander, J., & Weinberg, J. M. (2008). The instability of philosophical intuitions: Running hot and cold on truetemp. Philosophy and phenomenological research, 76(1), 138–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyUniversity of BernBern 9Switzerland

Personalised recommendations