Elizabeth Anderson Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms (image via http://www-personal.umich.edu/~eandersn/norms.pdf)

Elizabeth Anderson – Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms

“For more than a century, Homo economicus has exclusively populated the theoretical world of economics. This model of the rationally self-interested actor has also come to dominate substantial subfields of political science, sociology, law, and philosophy. However, many theorists doubt whether this model can explain most social phenomena unless it is supplemented with more socially sophisticated elements, such as so- cial and ethical values, altruism, and desires for social status. Among these theorists are Avner Ben-Ner and Louis Putterman, who have published the results of such supplementation by various contributors in Economics, Values, and Organization. The contributors ask: Why and when do people cooperate? How do social norms evolve? How do values and incentives interact and influence social organizations and market outcomes?

These questions lead to one of the central puzzles of social theory: that of explaining why people comply with social norms.’ A social norm is a standard of behavior shared by a social group, commonly understood by its members as authoritative or obligatory for them. Social norms differ from moral norms: they need not have moral content or be viewed as morally obligatory (consider norms of fashion). Nor are they the same as norms of rationality,which apply to the individual as such, regardless of group membership. Yet, they still appear to be backed by some kind of normative force. Let us call this understanding of group members that they all ought to obey the standard of conduct defined by a social norm the normativity of the norm. Social norms are also typically enforced by sanctions such as praise and blame, social inclusion and exclusion. The normativity of the norm is whatever members of the social group appeal to in holding one another accountable to it and justifying the imposition of sanctions.

Social theory today offers three broad strategies for explaining why people comply with social norms. (1) Rational choice theory uses the model of Homo economicus.It explains behavior in conformity with so- cial norms as the product of the strategic interactions of instrumentally rational, self-interested individuals. (2) Evolutionarytheory uses models of biological or cultural evolution. It explains conformity to social norms as the expression of heritable genetic or cultural traits that have differential success in replicating themselves due to some selective process. (3) The third explanatory strategy uses models of Homo sociologicus – what I shall call here “social” or “cultural” rationality. It explains conformity to social norms in terms of the normativity of norms, and grounds that normativity in the ways individuals see norms as meaningfully expressing their social identities, their relationships to other people, or shared intentions and values.

These three explanatory strategies each bear a different relation to the point of view of the agent. Evolutionary theory takes a point of view external to the agent. A norm could spread because of selective pressures that work independently of whatever their adherents see as binding them to obey it. Social rationality explains social norms from the adherents’ own point of view. On this view, most people have internalized the norm and will obey it because of its normativity, apart from the sanctions attached to it. Rational choice theory represents individuals as taking a more alienated posture toward social norms. Although they may see that general conformity to a norm would be desirable, this does not provide them with a reason to conform, so long as personal confor- mity is, on net, costly to each agent. Only incentives contingently attached to the norm could provide a rational, self-interested individual a reason to conform. A person’s reasons for conformity are thus external to the normativity of the norm, incidental to whatever might make its adherents approve of general conformity to it.

Amartya Sen argues that these three explanatory strategies are complementary, not mutually exclusive. A norm could be followed both because of its perceived intrinsic merits and because of incentives. Its perceived intrinsic merits could include both prudential and imper- sonal goods. It could even have been established by the forces of both mindless selective pressures and deliberate institution. Sen is correct. But his bid for peace among competing schools of social theory obscures dependency relations among the different explanatory strategies. I shall argue that the normativity of norms plays an indispensable role in accounting for the motive to comply with them. Rational choice explanations of norms are dependent on social rationality. This conclusion draws upon the theories and evidence provided by Economics, Values, and Organization,while pressing most of its contributors to be even bolder in challenging the model of Homo economicus.”


Elizabeth Anderson
Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms


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