Categorial preferences and utility functions

This post is mo­ti­vated by a re­cent post of Stu­art Arm­strong on go­ing from prefer­ences to a util­ity func­tion. It was origi­nally planned as a com­ment, but seems to have de­vel­oped a bit of a life of its own. The ideas here came up in a dis­cus­sion with Owen Bie­sel; all mis­takes in this ex­po­si­tion are mine. I’m not very good with the type­set­ting en­g­ine here, so apolo­gies for la­tex and other prob­lems.

The ba­sic ideas is as fol­lows. Sup­pose we have a set of ob­jects, and we are given some in­for­ma­tion on which ob­jects are preferred to which other ob­jects. Then we are in­ter­ested in whether and in how many ways this data can be cap­tured by a util­ity func­tion. Our key in­no­va­tion is that we as­sume not only the di­rec­tion of prefer­ences is given, but also some in­for­ma­tion on the strength of the prefer­ences, in a man­ner which we will make pre­cise be­low (weak prefer­ences).

Ba­sic on or­ders vs util­ity functions

We re­fer to the Order The­ory page on Wikipe­dia for the defi­ni­tions of re­flex­ive, anti-sym­met­ric, tran­si­tive and con­nex­ive bi­nary re­la­tions. If is a set and is a func­tion (`util­ity’), this in­duces a re­flex­ive, tran­si­tive and con­nected bi­nary re­la­tion (not anti-sym­met­ric in gen­eral, un­less is in­jec­tive).

Con­versely, any re­flex­ive, tran­si­tive, an­ti­sym­met­ric and con­nex­ive bi­nary re­la­tion (a.k.a. to­tal or­der) on a countable set , this is in­duced by a util­ity func­tion tak­ing val­ues in the ra­tio­nal num­bers (link to proof); there is a more gen­eral dis­cus­sion here.

Strength of prefer­ences

In what fol­lows, we fix a to­tally or­dered abelian group . To ex­press a prefer­ence be­tween to ob­jects , of our set , one should give an el­e­ment of which ex­presses how strongly is preferred to . The most nat­u­ral ex­am­ple is to take , then:

Say­ing is preferred to with strength 1 means we slightly pre­fer to ;

Say­ing s1 is preferred to s2 with strength 0 means have no prefer­ence be­tween s1 and s2;

Say­ing s1 is preferred to s2 with strength 2 means we pre­fer s1 to s2 more strongly;

Say­ing s1 is preferred to s2 with strength −1 means we slightly pre­fer s2 to s1.

Ex­pres­sions of preference

We con­sider three ways of de­scribing prefer­ences among ob­jects in a set :

1. Weak Prefer­ence

Defi­ni­tion. A weak prefer­ence among el­e­ments of con­sists of a col­lec­tion of triples with and .

A triple (s1,s2,g) is in­ter­preted as mean­ing that is preferred to with strength . This is the kind of data one might be pro­vided with in prac­tise; for ex­am­ple, some­one tells you that they slightly pre­fer cats to dogs, but strongly prefers dogs to snakes (as­sign­ing num­bers/​el­e­ments of to the strengths of the prefer­ences).

2. Cat­e­gor­i­cal preference

Defi­ni­tion. To give a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence for el­e­ments of is to give a cat­e­gory with ob­jects , to­gether with an en­rich­ment over

This defi­ni­tion may seem a bit cryp­tic, but is close to a stan­dard way of think­ing of an or­der as an en­rich­ment. For ev­ery two ob­jects we as­sign an el­e­ment of (which we think of as tel­ling us the strength of the prefer­ence for over ), sub­ject to a bunch of com­pat­i­bil­ity con­di­tions (for ex­am­ple it will im­ply that the prefer­ence for over is given by the unit of ). More de­tails and ex­pan­sion can be found in Law­vere’s Tak­ing Cat­e­gories Se­ri­ously.

3. Utility function

This is just a func­tion , and is in­ter­preted in the usual way.


In prac­tise, in­for­ma­tion is likely to be sup­plied in the form of a weak prefer­ence. Ul­ti­mately one wants a util­ity func­tion to feed to some op­ti­mi­sa­tion pro­ce­dure. We will de­scribe how to pass nat­u­rally from a weak to a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence, and then see (un­der some hy­pothe­ses) that a cat­e­go­rial prefer­ences in­duces an es­sen­tially-unique util­ity func­tion.

We sup­pose through­out that S and G are fixed, with finite for sim­plic­ity.

Weak prefer­ences to cat­e­go­rial preferences

First, given a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence, choos­ing a sub­set of ar­rows yields a weak prefer­ence. On the other hand, given a weak prefer­ence, we are in­ter­ested in

Q1. whether this weak prefer­ence can arise from a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence, and

Q2. if so, then from how many dis­tinct cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ences can this weak prefer­ence arise.

Sup­pose we are given a weak prefer­ence . First, for ev­ery triple , we ad­join to the triple ; call the re­sult­ing weak prefer­nce A cy­cle in W’ is a finite or­dered se­quence of triples , and such a cy­cle is closed if

Claim 1: The weak prefer­ence can be ex­tended to a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence if and only if ev­ery cy­cle is closed.

Sketch of proof. Sup­pose we are given and , and want to as­sign an el­e­ment of If there is no path from to we can as­sign any el­e­ment we want (we will use this ob­ser­va­tion later). If there is a path, then the group law in de­ter­mines a value of the prefer­ence of over . The only way a prob­lem might arise is if there are two (or more) paths from to , but then the cy­cles are closed con­di­tion means that these paths will in­duce the same prefer­ence for over . QED

We move on the the unique­ness ques­tion. As­sume that satis­fies the `cy­cles are closed’ con­di­tion, and write for the set of con­nected com­po­nents of .

Claim 2. The set of cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ences re­strict­ing to is nat­u­rally in bi­jec­tion with

In par­tic­u­lar, if is con­nected then there is ex­actly one way to as­so­ci­ate a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence.

Sketch of proof. In the proof of claim 1, the only choice we made was when there was no path from to In that case we chose an el­e­ment of . QED

From cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ences to util­ity func­tions

Sup­pose we are given a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence on , i.e. the struc­ture of a cat­e­gory en­riched over with ob­ject set . Analo­gously to the above, we are in­ter­ested in whether and in how many ways this can be in­duced by a util­ity func­tion.

From now on, we as­sume that is Archimedean , equiv­a­lently that it is iso­mor­phic (as an or­dered group) to a sub­group of . This iso­mor­phism is then nec­es­sar­ily unique up to scal­ing (Holder’s the­o­rem).

Sup­pose first that we have a util­ity func­tion . Let be a sub­group con­tain­ing for ev­ery . Then by as­sign­ing to the pair the el­e­ment we give a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence struc­ture, with en­rich­ment over .

Again, we are in­ter­ested in two ques­tions:

Q1. given a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence on , does it arise from some util­ity func­tion in the above fash­ion?

Q2. If the an­swer to Q1 is `yes’, then from` how many` util­ity func­tions can out cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence arise?

The an­swer to Q1 is always yes. First choose an em­bed­ding of in as a to­tally or­dered group. Then choose some el­e­ment , and define The val­ues of on the other el­e­ments of are then uniquely de­ter­mined by the en­riched cat­e­gory struc­ture.

Q2 is al­most as easy. The em­bed­ding of in is unique up to scal­ing, and the choice of is just a trans­la­tion. Hence the util­ity func­tion is unique up to trans­la­tion and scal­ing.


In prac­tise, we might be given the data of a weak prefer­ence. We have seen an easy way to check whether it can be ex­tended to a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence, and a sim­ple de­scrip­tion of all the re­sult­ing pos­si­ble cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ences. A cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence always comes from a util­ity func­tion, in a way which is unique up to trans­la­tion and scal­ing.

In ac­tual prac­tise, it is not un­likely that the weak prefer­ence data will not come from a cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence (and thus not from a util­ity func­tion). Then we should prob­a­bly look for the `most rea­son­able’ as­so­ci­ated cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence, how to do this is not so clear to me yet.

I find the fact that util­ity func­tions are only unique up to trans­la­tion and scal­ing a bit awk­ward; maybe this no­tion of cat­e­gor­i­cal prefer­ence cap­tures the im­por­tant data in a more canon­i­cal fash­ion?!