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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Identity and Interests

I don't have anything useful to say about this, but I'm hoping you will, so I'll refrain from the usual space fillers that don't say anything (such as what I just wrote and am writing). This is from Kevin Quinn:

Identity and Interests, by Kevin Quinn: I believe that the "economic way of thinking," as the textbooks have it, destroys the world we have in common, because that world is a world constructed in a normative, not a natural, space and rationality, as economists understand it, is inconsistent with, indeed makes nonsense of, the notion of normative authority. In effect, this point was made 30 years ago by Amartya Sen in "Rational Fools," where he argued that while the economic conception of rationality can make sense of "sympathy," - preference structures that made the utility of others part of the agent's objective function - it cannot make sense of what Sen called "commitment," which he defined as "counter-preferential choice." The idea that we sometimes sacrifice something - lower our utility - to do what is right is absolutely inconsistent with rational choice. I don't doubt that there are people who are well described as rational choosers - and more of them, unfortunately, than there would be had rational choice theory never been invented - but they are damaged humans, sociopaths.

The history of attempts to make sense of normative authority without giving up utility maximization is sad and pathetic and I will not rehearse it here. (The crudest is the attempt to make values a species of meta- or second-order preferences; the problem is that this approach cannot explain why their "second-orderness" gives them any more authority than the first-order preferences they are about.)

At one time, influenced by Mark Sagoff and early Bowles and Gintis, I thought that a reasonable way of "assimilating" the normative, taming it, in effect, was to distinguish between our concern with pursuing our interests and our concern with our identities, with the latter concern giving rise to commitment and making sense of normativity. So I refrain from doing something that would serve my interests because I am (we are) not the sort of person (people) who would do such a thing. This sort of thing is perfectly compatible with utility maximization, as the Akerlof/Krainton papers have shown, and therefore perfectly inconsistent with Senian commitment.

Here is the deeper problem with using "identity" to make sense of commitment: the criteria of identity are, if identity is to underpin the normative, themselves normative, not natural. My commitment to honest inquiry is tied to my identity as a "scientist," say- but scientists understood as honest inquirers, not scientists per se -many of whom are not honest. So appeal to identity to make sense of normative authority is, or can be, question-begging.

The normative, I submit, is irreducible. Hic rosa, hic salta!

I had to look up "Hic rosa, hic salta!" I think it means, essentially, "put up or shut up," but it's still not completely clear to me and that may not be right. Anyone? Update: Via email, see here too.

At EconoSpeak, Peter Dorman comments:

Interesting post, Kevin. There is an empirical side to normative behavior that is more or less tractable. This is about explaining why one norm is chosen over another, and, in some cases, why behavioral discontinuity (the indicator of a norm) exists. I've been interested in risk norms for some time.

But you are interested in the question of why individuals accept the authority of externally-given norms, which is different. I suspect this is (at least) two different problems. One is how individuals constitute themselves, perhaps fictitiously, as a "we" instead of an "I". That is an identity problem, but not exactly the same one you describe. (It is invoked at times by Sagoff, but not with much precision.) The other is the willful abandonment of personal authority -- simply giving over one's choice to an external institution or dictate. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish.

I'm less worried than I used to be about figuring this stuff out. There are sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists and now neuropsychologists to do that job. I think it's enough for economists to just import their findings, as long as we don't try to squeeze it through the filter of utility theory.

    Posted by on Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 01:37 PM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (15)


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