The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, Second Edition
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The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, Second Edition

Edited by John B. Davis and Wilfred Dolfsma

Social economics is a dynamic and growing field that emphasizes the key roles social values play in the economy and economic life. This second edition of the Elgar Companion to Social Economics revises all chapters from the first edition, and adds important new chapters to reflect the expansion and development of social economics. The expert contributions explain a wide range of recent developments across different subject areas and topics in the field, mapping out possible directions of future social economic research. Social economics treats the economy and economics as embedded in a web of social and ethical relationships. It considers economics and ethics as essentially connected, and adds values such as justice, fairness, dignity, well-being, freedom, and equality to the standard emphasis on efficiency. This book will be a leading resource and guide to social economics for many years to come.
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Chapter 6: Individual preferences and decision-making

Shaun P. Hargreaves Heap


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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