Sunstein on Preferences Notes for October 8

Main points

Sunstein argues that “preferences” are too coarse to be useful in either empirical social science or in making social policy. This is so because of the influences of norms on our choices.

Preferences are said to be very close to choices. According to the definition of the term “preferences” in revealed preference theories, the two are identical. Some regard preferences as the states of mind that cause or explain choices. They can’t think that preferences and choices are identical, obviously, but they nonetheless treat the one as the cause of the other.

Sunstein’s article begins with several examples that befuddle at least the first way of understanding “preferences”.** I can’t recall if they’re supposed to cause trouble for the second way too. In these cases, people seem to have preferences that are either contradictory or too unsettled to be useful for explanation and prediction on either of the received definitions of the term. Sunstein argues that the behavior is explicable once social norms are brought into the picture.

Norms and policy

Social policy influences social norms. Two things follow from this.

First, it complicates projects like Menzel’s and Dworkin’s. They try to move from what people would want to conclusions about social policy. Since social policy alters what people would want, it’s possible that “what people would want” is too indeterminate to be used to set social policy in the ways that Menzel and Dworkin imagine.†† On the other hand, neither has to be super precise. They just have to reach some conclusions about either the health care system or the economy as a whole in order to have succeeded.

Second, the manipulation of social norms is something available to the state. This means that the state has tools to bring about desired results that are less intrusive than legal prohibitions backed by coercive force. Professor Brown noted that this is a particularly useful part of this article for students writing theses that move between social theory and social policy. See pp. 948–52, e.g.

Michael Stout and I (Green) carped about whether Sunstein had proven that the law can be used to influence social norms. Professor Brown had a good example: Truman’s decision to desegregate the Army.

This page was written by Eleanor Brown and Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2007.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being