Edited by John B. Davis and Wilfred Dolfsma
Chapter 6: Individual preferences and decision-making
The dominant model of decision-making in economics identifies the individual with their preferences; and decisions are made so as best to satisfy these preferences. The concept of preference is thus the lynchpin on which instrumental reason works and it is largely untheorized because, paradigmatically, de gustibus es non disputandum. One way of understanding the contribution of social economics is that it does not accept that preferences are a given in this sense: they are, instead, socially and historically constituted. The social aspect of this naturally weakens the individualism of the dominant model, but the historical dimension creates the space for a different and dynamic conception of the individual as someone who in some degree chooses and becomes responsible for their preferences. Of course, there are several ways to elaborate this distinguishing observation about the individual in social economics. The virtue of using the language of preferences to cash out social and historical location in this context is that it preserves a point of connection with the dominant model. This both enables a form of dialogue and avoids the charge that ‘making individuals social and historical’ is no more than a slogan. It could, however, have two possible disadvantages. First, the traffic across the preference bridge may in practice blur the distinction between social economics and the dominant model. Since substance matters more than titles, I am not especially disturbed by such ambiguities regarding provenance.
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