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Working Paper 270 - The Economy of Tastes, Feelings, and Opinions
Interpersonal comparisons of well-being have preoccupied economists, social scientists, and philosophers for centuries. They are also central to theoretical debates about how to improve the lives of the people in Africa. Various problems must be addressed to elaborate intellectual and policy frameworks for making socially acceptable decisions. One must obviously start with valid methods for defining, understanding, capturing, and measuring the notion of individual well-being. The methods used for individual assessments should also be extended to social groups in ways that make them meaningful and credible. All this supposes that individual preferences can be measured at a satisfactory level of confidence and that the intrinsic “subjectivity” in such exercises is more than compensated by the “objectivity” of the methods used. This paper offers summarizes the intellectual progress made by economists in their search for a valid social choice theory, and outlines a few aspects of Amartya Sen’s most recent contribution on the topic. It then discusses some of the remaining ethical questions, and urges economists to be more attuned to the research findings in other social science disciplines and the humanities.