ECON4271 – Distributive Justice and Economic Inequality

Schedule, syllabus and examination date

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Course content

The course is an introduction to economic approaches to justice and fairness from both theoretical and empirical perspectives.

The course starts by a discussion of the possibility for a society to aggregate different views on what is good. Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that that this is infeasible, but subsequent approaches have explored how this result may be circumvented.

The most common way to avoid the impossibility result is to assume that well-beings of agents can be both measured and interpersonally compared. These indexes of well-beings, i.e. individual utilities, can then be aggregated into a measure of social welfare, as in the case of utilitarianism.

An alternative is to restrict the attention to one-dimensional issues, such as individual income, health, distance from a facility, etc… In particular, a large literature has analyzed how to rank income distributions in terms of social welfare or poverty measures.

The course also contains a part on the empirical measurement of social welfare and inequality: How can we rank income distributions and Lorenz curves, what properties should measures of inequality satisfy, how can we derive measure from theoretical views of equal versus unequal distributions, and how do we measure inequality in practice.

Finally, the course covers a number of empirical questions related to inequality:

  • How has inequality evolved in different parts of the world?
  • How can we explain these changes?
  • To what extent has inequality become more or less “fair” over time?
  • What is the interplay between inequality, economic performance, and public policies.

Learning outcome

You should know

  • Understand the challenge of measuring social welfare
  • Know the main approaches to distributional justice
  • Compare different inequality indices and know their strengths and weaknesses
  • Know how inequality has evolved in the world and explain parts of this evolution

You should be able to

  • Choose the most appropriate approach to measuring social welfare for each economic problem
  • Perform a sensible welfare analysis for understanding the effects of economic policies
  • Be able to undertake an analysis of inequality

You should

  • Be able to read and understand project reports and journal articles that make use of the concepts and methods that are introduced in the course
  • Be able to make use of the course content in your own academic work, for example in analyses that are part of the master’s thesis


Students who are admitted to study programmes at UiO must each semester register which courses and exams they wish to sign up for in Studentweb.

If you are not already enrolled as a student at UiO, please see our information about admission requirements and procedures.

Apply for guest student status if you are admitted to another Master's programme, or have completed a master in Economics at UiO or another Norwegian University.


Formal prerequisite knowledge

Recommended previous knowledge

Overlapping courses


Lectures and seminars. 

The course will be taught in English unless all participants are Norwegian speakers.


A 3-hour written school exam.

Previous exams.

Examination support material

Students may use dictionaries at this exam. Dictionaries must be handed in before the examination. Please read regulations for dictionaries permitted at the examination.

Language of examination

The problem set will be given in English. Answers can be given in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish or in English.

Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

It is recommended to request an explanation of your grade before you decide to appeal.



The deadline to request an explanation is one week after the grade is published. For oral and practical examinations, the deadline is immediately after you have received your grade.

The explanation should normally be given within two weeks after you have asked for it. The examiner decides whether the explanation is to be given in writing or verbally.

Ask for an explanation of your grade in this course.

Ask for an explanation of your grade for postponed exam in this course.

Resit an examination

If you are sick or have another valid reason for not attending the regular exam, we offer a postponed exam later in the same semester.

See also our information about resitting an exam.

Withdrawal from an examination

It is possible to take the exam up to 3 times. If you withdraw from the exam after the deadline or during the exam, this will be counted as an examination attempt.

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.


The course is subject to continuous evaluation. At regular intervals we also ask students to participate in a more comprehensive evaluation.

A periodic course evaluation was conducted Spring 2015

Facts about this course





Teaching language