The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Interpersonal Utility Comparisons

  • John C. Harsanyi
Reference work entry


Although we all make interpersonal utility comparisons, many economists and philosophers argue that our limited information about other people’s minds renders them meaningless. If they are possible, interpersonal comparisons of utility differences must be distinguished from interpersonal comparisons of utility levels. Utilitarianism must assume the interpersonal comparability of utility differences to maximize a social welfare function, while Rawls’s maximin principle requires interpersonal comparability of utility levels. Adopting an ordinalist or a cardinalist view of utility functions restricts the positions one can consistently take as to interpersonal comparability of utilities.


Arrow, K. Interpersonal utility comparisons Maximin Rawls, J. Robbins, L. Utilitarianism Utility: cardinal vs. ordinal von Neumann–Morgenstern utility function 

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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • John C. Harsanyi
    • 1
  1. 1.