Richardson, Henry S. (2017). 'Fragmenting Social Choice for the Sake of Agency and Participation' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


In this paper, I seek to engage social choice theory from the point of view of a political philosopher.  Social choice theory is an extremely powerful tool for examining the rationality properties of collective decisions.  It originated in the 18th Century in the Marquis de Condorcet’s work on voting paradoxes and Borda’s work on voting rules.  Kenneth Arrow powerfully generalized these approaches by looking at individuals’ ordinal rankings of alternative social states and by considering the possibility that ways of aggregating them could satisfy various desirable axioms.  About this kind of effort, which generated Arrow’s famous impossibility result, Amartya Sen commented in his Nobel Lecture that the axiomatic approach “is something of an exercise in brinksmanship”:  one tries to put enough axioms in place to characterize a specific and attractive method of social choice, and in so doing, will naturally be on the verge of assembling a jointly unsatisfiable set of axioms (Sen 2002 [1998], 74).  In his own pioneering work in social choice theory, Sen characterized various ways of avoiding Arrow’s impossibility result (Sen 1970).  Most importantly, he championed the possibility of stepping back from the ordinalists’ limitations on information, so that one might work with interpersonally comparable input.  Sen’s work on capabilities pursues this possibility.  More recently, another important development in social choice theory has been to generalize the axiomatic theory beyond preference or welfare aggregation (Dietrich & List 2010), including thereby the aggregation of judgments (e.g., List & Pettit 2002). 


In the Nobel Lecture, Sen characterized “the motivating issue that inspires social choice theory” as follows:  “How can it be possible to arrive at cogent aggregative judgments about the society (for example, about “social welfare,” or “the public interest,” or “aggregate poverty”), given the diversity of preferences, concerns, and predicaments of the different individuals within the society?” (Sen 2002, 66).  In assessing social welfare or poverty, aggregable information about individuals is often available.  I want to focus my attention, however, on selecting political actions from among several alternatives.  In such cases, aggregating everyone’s preferences or judgments is exceedingly challenging and complex.  Taking Sen’s point that “informal insights, important as they are, cannot replace … formal investigations” in this area (2002, 73), as someone not competent to pursue social choice theory’s formal investigations, I seek to raise some informal questions, hoping there by to contribute to philosophy’s ongoing exchange with social choice theorists.  I raise three interconnected questions about how the values of agency and freedom interact with social choice theory’s focus on various rationality properties. 


All three questions arise from the fact that, in a modern democracy, it makes little sense to model the polity as a single collective.  The voting in which all citizens have the right to participate is merely a preliminary step.  Between that and the making of policy comes the operation of many public, governmental collectives (to confine our attention only to those with an official role).  Consider the following three ways that their interactions can be structured:  First, they can be tiered:  national elections can give a mandate to a party platform that serves to structure the premises of legislative debate; and enacted legislation can serve to structure the premises of agency policy- and rule-making.  Second, multiple governmental collectives can be set up to counter-balance one another causally, either in simple checks-and-balances mode or more substantively, as in the way that ministries in charge of commercial development and consumer protection might offset and complement each other.  Third, the problems facing the nation may be carved up into different substantive areas, with different governmental collectives given exclusive or privileged jurisdiction over each.  For example, an environment ministry might be given exclusive jurisdiction over ecological sustainability issues and an energy ministry might be given exclusive jurisdiction over regulating fossil-fuel extraction.  And of course, all three of these mechanisms can be combined.  Our need to rely on them poses complex challenges to the people’s political agency. 


Christian List (2013, 54) has discussed the case of tiered decision processes from a social-choice theorist’s perspective, noting that the path-dependence to which they give rise make them open to agenda manipulation.  I expect that all three of the above ways of structuring political decisions raise similar dangers, making social-choice-theoretic rationality difficult to attain.  Nonetheless, I remain convinced that all three are wise, instrumentally rational ways of organizing our political decision-making.  More importantly, I argue, they help provide pathways whereby we can exercise our democratic agency and attain the kind of freedom that democratic self-governance affords. 


Recognizing these pathways for political agency requires drawing on a capacious understanding of public reasoning, one able to welcome such modes of structuring decision-making rather than taking them to be obstacles to overcome.  Building on my work on reasoning with final ends (Richardson 2015) and on the division of moral labor among principles (Richardson, forthcoming), as well as on Sen (2009), I will put forward such a conception of public reasoning:  one that sees the different public collectives as legitimately focusing on a variety of missions, at least when these are underwritten by publicly endorsed values or principles.



Dietrich, F. and C. List. 2010. “The Aggregation of Propositional Attitudes: Towards a General Theory,” Oxford Studies in Epistemology 3: 215-34.

List, C. 2002.  “Social Choice Theory,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

List, C. and P. Pettit. 2002. “Aggregating Sets of Judgments: An Impossibility Result,” Economics and Philosophy 18: 89-110.

Richardson, Henry S. 2015. “Using Final Ends for the Sake of Better Policy-Making,” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 16: 161-72.

Richardson, Henry S. Forthcoming. “Taking Multidimensionality Seriously: Rawls and the Capability Approach,” Handbook of the Capability Approach, ed. M. Qizilbash & S. Osmani (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Sen, Amartya. 1970.  Collective Choice and Social Welfare (San Francisco: Holden-Day).

Sen, Amartya.  2002 [1998]. “The Possibility of Social Choice,” in A. Sen, Rationality and Freedom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press): 65-118.

Sen, Amartya.  2009.  The Idea of Justice. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). 

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