Edited by John B. Davis and Wilfred Dolfsma
Chapter 7: The conception of the socially embedded individual
Social economics differs in many respects from standard mainstream economics, but one of the most fundamental differences is that it employs a conception of the human individual as socially embedded rather than as atomistic. Indeed, just as the atomistic individual conception is one of the defining characteristics of mainstream economics, so the socially embedded individual conception is one of the defining characteristics of social economics. Broadly speaking, the difference between these two conceptions rests on whether individuals and their behavior are explained ‘externally’ in terms of their social relationships, or ‘internally’ in terms of their private tastes and preferences. The former perspective sees social life as intrinsic to our understanding of individuals as social beings; the latter perspective operates with a view of social life restricted to the market interaction of individuals understood as non-social beings. It follows that these two conceptions of the individual also support two different normative visions of individuals and society. The socially embedded individual conception is associated with normative principles that emphasize relationships between people, such as equality, fairness and the (positive) freedom to achieve, whereas the atomistic individual conception is associated with normative principles that emphasize the independence of individuals, such as autonomy, rights and (negative) freedom from social interference. We can characterize the former approach as a social justice view and the latter approach as a liberal society view.
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