Academic journal article Journal of Economic and Social Research

Implications of Multiple Preferences for a Deconstructive Critique and a Reconstructive Revision of Economic Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Economic and Social Research

Implications of Multiple Preferences for a Deconstructive Critique and a Reconstructive Revision of Economic Theory

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article explores some of the implications of multiple preferences for modern economic theory. The implications in question open up possibilities for a productive deconstructive critique and an enriching reconstructive revision of many of the discursive structures that are central to contemporary economic theory.

JEL Classification Codes: D11, D59.

Key Words: Multiple Preferences, Economic Theory.

It is a puzzling feature of the modern economic paradigm that a discourse so preoccupied and fascinated with the complexities of economic reality remains so simplistic in some of its fundamental conceptions of that reality. In very few conceptions has this simplicity been as striking as with the notion of the one-dimensionally representable self that underlies economic theory. Conventional (neoclassical) economic theory is based on a conception of a rational self as a coherent, non-contradictory unity representable by a single, complete, reflexive and transitive preference relation (i.e., a preference ordering). The unidimensional preference ordering of the self is, in general, presumed to be representable by a real-valued function signifying a homogeneous magnitude (utility) to be maximized subject to constraints so as to determine the rational course of choice. Though this conception of the self and rationality is enriched, extended and supplemented in various ways so as to incorporate the choices in uncertain and non-parametric environments (such as choices made under risk, uncertainty and conditions of strategic interaction) as well as the choices in intertemporal contexts, the one-dimensional representation of the self by a single preference ordering has remained at the center of economic analysis.

To what extent can a conception of self as a one-dimensionally representable, coherent, non-contradictory unity properly capture the complexities of human behavior as constituted by multiple and often conflicting motivations, contradictory desires, plural and incommensurable values, and qualitatively and irreducibly different criteria of judgment? The notion of a coherent self representable by a unified preference ordering appears to be inadequate to account for the empirically visible irregularities in preference patterns (such as intransitive preferences1 and preference reversals2) as well as the rich variety of theoretically feasible human behavioral patterns involving well-recognized psychological complexities of inner conflicts, contradictory goals or incommensurable viewpoints concerning the choices. Characterized and constituted by qualitatively different values inducing multiple and often conflicting considerations, the preference pattern of a complex self may not lend itself to a single, complete, reflexive, and transitive preference relation. That is to say, it may not be possible to aggregate the multiple, conflicting considerations into a unified ordering.3 Human beings appear to be too complex to be represented by the notion of the one-dimensionally representable self that underlies economic theory.

The possibility of preference patterns incapable of being represented by a unified preference ordering calls for an alternative framework which posits the self as a multidimensional complexity as opposed to a one-dimensionally representable simplicity. In other words, we need a framework in which the self is represented by multiple dimensions and hence by multiple preferences. Multiple dimensions of the self could be taken to indicate the multiple considerations with respect to which alternatives of choice are to be ranked. These rankings may be irreducibly distinct, partly interdependent, possibly conflicting, context-dependent and/or dynamic.4

Conceiving the self as a multidimensional complexity with irreducibly distinct, interdependent but conflicting multiple preferences has profound implications for economic theory, which would render certain conventional theoretical propositions fundamentally problematic, but at the same time open up new possibilities for an enriching reconstructive revision. …

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