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Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being: A Proposed Interpretation and Solution

57 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2009 Last revised: 13 Jun 2016

J.P. Sevilla


Date Written: June 12, 2016


I do two things in this essay. First, I try to reawaken interest in the classic unsolved welfare-economic problem of interpersonal comparisons of well-being (ICWs) and argue for a particular interpretation of it. More specifically, I argue that in policy matters, we should take people’s well-being to be grounded in their subjective evaluation of their life circumstances. Given this, we ought also understand the ICW problem as it historically was, as a mindreading problem. It is the problem of comparing the private first-person aspects of people’s lives (like the magnitudes of their subjective values) on the basis of their public third-person aspects (like their observable choices or behaviors).

En route to this first aim, I discuss the failure of preference (i.e. rational choice) theory, in the form of the zero-one and extended preference theories, to solve the ICW problem. I discuss the major ethical theories of well-being and meta-ethical theories of value and show that all of them concede the relevance of subjective value to well-being. I also argue that we have policy-based reasons for rejecting objective- in favor of subjective meta-ethics.

Second, I try to articulate a solution to the mindreading problem, using arguments from the philosophy of mind, the sciences, and policy considerations. More specifically, I argue that we should take interpersonal comparisons of phenomenal quantities to be materially equivalent to comparisons of certain neural quantities. We should, for example, take Jack’s subjective valuation of an extra dollar to be 20% higher than Diane’s if and only if the neurons that encode subjective values in Jack’s brain are firing at a 20% higher rate than in Diane’s.

In making my second main argument regarding material equivalence, I rely at crucial junctures on broadly acceptable policy-based arguments as opposed to divisive metaphysical ones. Despite intractable metaphysical disagreements among philosophers of mind, my conclusions should command the assent of most of the important positions within that literature, including reductionist physicalist, epiphenomenal and parallelist versions of non-reductionist physicalism, and modern dualism.

Keywords: interpersonal comparisons, well-being, mind-body problem, supervenience, type identity

JEL Classification: A12, B30, D63, I30, I31

Suggested Citation

Sevilla, J.P., Interpersonal Comparisons of Well-Being: A Proposed Interpretation and Solution (June 12, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

J.P. Sevilla (Contact Author)

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