Philosophy Colloquium
Mike Zenz
University of Maryland
Context-specific and Context-free Social Choice Models

Social choice theory offers a number of formal models that allow for the aggregation of ordinal and numerical scales. Although it is most often used to model elections and social welfare, it has also been used to model a wide variety of other phenomena, including the selection of scientific theories and the collective judgments of computers. But the skeptical findings of social choice theory have had particular impact within political philosophy and political science. For instance, William Riker famously used Arrow's impossibility theorem, which shows that no voting rule satisfies a number of reasonable conditions on democratic choice, to argue that populist theories of democracy are false. I argue that such skeptical findings are often the result of the context-free nature of orthodox social choice models. The addition of assumptions plausible only within particular theoretical contexts often produces models that avoid many of these skeptical results. I examine three examples of context-specific social choice models that are appropriate within the following theoretical contexts: scientific theory selection, elections, and the measurement of public opinion. I argue that such context-specific models typically represent their respective phenomena better than context-free models, and consequently are better able to determine what problems may or may not exist within their specific contexts. Finally, I suggest that a similar context-specific strategy might also be used in other formal areas of philosophy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014
3:30pm

Taliaferro 1103