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Principles of Fairness versus Human Welfare: On the Evaluation of Legal Policy


Louis Kaplow


Harvard Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Steven Shavell


Harvard Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

March 2000

Harvard Law School, Law-Econ Discussion Paper No. 277

Abstract:     
Our thesis is that the assessment of a legal policy should depend exclusively on its effects on human welfare, that is, on the well-being of individuals. In particular, no independent evaluative weight should be accorded to notions of fairness, such as corrective justice in tort and desert in punishment. (Concerns about the distribution of income are not, however, subject to our critique.) When the choice of legal rules is influenced by notions of fairness, individuals are often made worse off. Indeed, if the prescriptions of any notion of fairness are followed, it is always possible that everyone will be made worse off. Moreover, when we examine notions of fairness and the literature that advances them, we are unable to identify reasons that, on reflection, justify giving weight to these notions at the expense of individuals' well-being.

Nevertheless, notions of fairness are widely felt to be appealing. We suggest that this appeal can largely be explained by three factors: notions of fairness often correspond to social norms that usefully regulate everyday life; notions of fairness may serve as proxy devices for achieving instrumental objectives; and individuals may have a taste for satisfaction of the notions. However, we explain that none of these factors warrants employing notions of fairness as independent evaluative principles in the assessment of legal policy.

We develop these arguments through consideration of specific conceptions of fairness that are employed in major areas of law: tort, contract, legal procedure, and law enforcement. We also discuss the implications of our analysis for our primary audience, legal academics and other legal policy analysts, and also for government officials, notably legislators, regulators, and judges.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 460

JEL Classification: A11, A12, A13, D60, D63, H43, K00, K12, K13

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Date posted: May 23, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Kaplow, Louis and Shavell, Steven, Principles of Fairness versus Human Welfare: On the Evaluation of Legal Policy (March 2000). Harvard Law School, Law-Econ Discussion Paper No. 277. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=224946 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.224946

Contact Information

Louis Kaplow (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-4101 (Phone)
617-496-4880 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/facdir.php?id=32&show=bibliography
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
Steven Shavell
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-3668 (Phone)
617-496-2256 (Fax)
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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