A New Definition of and Role for Preferences in Positive Economics

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Abstract

Positive economic models aim to provide truthful explanations of significant (aspects of) economic phenomena. While the notion of ‘preferences’ figures prominently in micro-economic models, it suffers from a remarkable lack of conceptual clarity and rigor. After distinguishing narrow homo economicus models (self-interest maximization) from broader ones (preference satisfaction) and rehearsing the criticisms both have met, I go into the most promising attempt to date at addressing them, developed by Hausman. However, his definition of preferences as ‘total comparative evaluations’, I argue, plays into the general disregard that economists have for human psychology. My alternative definition of preferences as ‘overall comparative evaluations’ – and hence as one of the many factors that influence people’s behavior – allows for more adequate causal explanations of people’s dutiful, committed, and norm-guided actions. Against Hausman but in agreement with Sen, it also allows for (motivated) counterpreferential choice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-273
JournalJournal of Economic Methodology
Volume24
Issue number3
Early online date2017
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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