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Economists' Preferences and the Preferences of Economists


  • Bryan G. Norton


Economists, who adopt the principle of consumer sovereignty, treat preferences as unquestioned for the purposes of their analysis. They also represent preferences for future outcomes as having value in the present. It is shown that these two characteristics of neoclassical modelling rest on similar reasoning and are essential to achieve high aggregatability of preferences and values. But the meaning and broader implications of these characteristics vary according to the arguments given to support these methodological choices. The resulting ambiguities raise questions regarding economists' attitudes towards the study (by other disciplines) of preference formation and reformation. Under a strong, positivist interpretation (which is philosophically problematic), consumer sovereignty represents a rejection of any meaningful study of these subjects; under a weaker, methodological understanding, consumer sovereignty merely draws a boundary between economics and other disciplines. The weaker version is argued to be more defensible, and economists are urged to engage in interdisciplinary work that will clarify how preferences are formed, criticised and reformed.

Suggested Citation

  • Bryan G. Norton, 1994. "Economists' Preferences and the Preferences of Economists," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 3(4), pages 311-332, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:env:journl:ev3:ev317

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Herman E. Daly, 1972. "In Defense of a Steady-State Economy," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 54(5), pages 945-954.
    2. repec:eee:ecolec:v:138:y:2017:i:c:p:74-81 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Viviana Asara & Emanuele Profumi & Giorgos Kallis, 2013. "Degrowth, Democracy and Autonomy," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 22(2), pages 217-239, April.
    4. Elizabeth Shove, 2010. "Beyond the ABC: Climate Change Policy and Theories of Social Change," Environment and Planning A, , vol. 42(6), pages 1273-1285, June.
    5. Ulrich Brand, 2016. "How to Get Out of the Multiple Crisis? Contours of a Critical Theory of Social-Ecological Transformation," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 25(5), pages 503-525, October.
    6. Clive L. Spash, 2015. "The Future Post-Growth Society," Development and Change, International Institute of Social Studies, vol. 46(2), pages 366-380, March.
    7. Maddison, Angus, 2007. "Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199227204.
    8. Elizabeth Shove, 2010. "Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change," Environment and Planning A, Pion Ltd, London, vol. 42(6), pages 1273-1285, June.
    9. repec:env:journl:ev25:editev253 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Scott Cameron Lougheed & Myra J. Hird & Kerry R. Rowe, 2016. "Governing Household Waste Management: An Empirical Analysis and Critique," Environmental Values, White Horse Press, vol. 25(3), pages 287-308, June.
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    More about this item


    Consumer sovereignty; economic explanation; preference formation; preferences; value neutrality;

    JEL classification:

    • D46 - Microeconomics - - Market Structure, Pricing, and Design - - - Value Theory


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