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Question of Social Choice

Satish K. Jain

By Amartya Sen
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. ix 736, Rs. 795.00


This volume is a collection of twenty-two essays dealing with a wide range of issues in social choice theory and related areas. The fundamental concepts of rationality and freedom provide a unifying framework for the essays included in the volume. In mainstream economics rationality is usually taken to mean or imply self-interested maximization or internally consistent choice. Sen argues for taking a broader view of rationality. He suggests that instead of viewing rationality merely in terms of pursuit of self-interest or in terms of satisfaction of formulaic conditions such as axioms of internal consistency of choice, it should be seen in more general terms as the need to subject one’s choices to the demands of reason. The five essays included in Part II are concerned with spelling out this viewpoint. The essays of Part I in the volume provide a general introduction to social choice theory and some of the important issues it deals with.   The subject of social choice theory, pioneered by Kenneth Arrow, is concerned with decision rules which determine social choices on the basis of individual preferences. The desirability or otherwise of decision rules can be evaluated in terms of value-judgments which they satisfy or fail to satisfy. The most important and famous result of social choice theory is the Arrow Impossibility Theorem which shows that no method of aggregating individual preferences into social preferences exists which can satisfy a set of highly appealing and eminently reasonable conditions. These conditions are: (1) The decision rule must yield a ranking of social alternatives for any combination of individual rankings of alternatives. (Arrow assumed that there are at least two but a finite number of individuals; and that there are at least three social alternatives); (2) The decision rule must declare a social alternative to be better than another social alternative if everyone in the society prefers the former to the latter; (3) The decision rule must be non-dictatorial; and (4) The social choices must not be influenced by changes in individual preferences over irrelevant alternatives. In view of the profound implications of this result, a large part of social choice theory has been concerned with an in-depth analysis of the impossibility Theorem of Arrow. In a number of articles, Sen has scrutinized the structure of Arrow’s theorem. One important point that Sen has made in this context is that the reason for the Arrow paradox is to be sought in ...

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