The tyranny puzzle in social preferences: an empirical investigation

Frank A. Cowell, Marc Fleurbaey, Bertil Tungodden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


When forming their preferences about the distribution of income, rational people may be caught between two opposite forms of “tyranny.” Giving absolute priority to the worst-off imposes a sort of tyranny on the rest of the population, but giving less than absolute priority imposes a reverse form of tyranny where the worst-off may be sacrificed for the sake of small benefits to many well-off individuals. We formally show that this intriguing dilemma is more severe than previously recognised, and we examine how people negotiate such conflicts with a questionnaire-experimental study. Our study shows that both tyrannies are rejected by a majority of the participants, which makes it problematic for them to define consistent distributive preferences on the distribution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)765-792
Number of pages28
JournalSocial Choice and Welfare
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Economics and Econometrics


  • H20
  • H21


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