Social choice theory

academic discipline

Social choice theory or social choice is a theoretical framework for analysis of combining individual opinions, preferences, interests, or welfares to reach a collective decision or social welfare in some sense.


  • There was, however, another approach to justice that also emerged at about the same time in the works of other Enlightenment thinkers – other than the social contract theorists of that period. These theorists did not erect a fully developed structure of a theory of justice, but the ingredients of a different approach – different from the social contract theory – which they helped to identify, can be developed from their alternative understanding of the demands of justice. These theorists (including Adam Smith, the Marquis de Condorcet and Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century, and extended later to John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, among others) took a variety of approaches that differed in many ways from each other, but shared a common interest in making comparisons between different ways in which people’s lives may go, jointly influenced by the working of institutions, people’s actual behaviour, their social interactions and other factors that significantly impact on what actually happens. My attempt at advancing a theory of justice closely relates to this alternative foundation.
    The analytical – and rather mathematical – discipline of ‘social choice theory’, which had its origin in the works of French mathematicians in the eighteenth century, in particular the Marquis de Condorcet, but also others like Borda, and which has been revived and reformulated in our times by Kenneth Arrow, also belongs to this second line of investigation.
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108
  • In contrast with the ‘social contract’ tradition, a ‘social choice’ approach is concerned with public reasoning – and that can go well beyond national boundaries. There is a strong case for an inclusive effort to bring in the perspectives and values of other people, even when they live far away. Indeed, the inputs into the exercise of invoking of the ‘impartial spectator’ can come from far as well as near, as Smith explained.
    • Amartya Sen, “Values and justice”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2012, 101–108

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