WP 2016-06 Varieties of Paternalism and the Heterogeneity of Utility Structures

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Published in Journal of Economic Methodology, Volume 25, Issue 1.

AUTHORS: Glenn W. Harrison and Don Ross

ABSTRACT: A principal source of interest in behavioral economics has been its advertised contributions to policies aimed at ‘nudging’ people away from allegedly natural but self-defeating behavior toward patterns of response thought more likely to improve their welfare. This has occasioned controversies among economists and philosophers around the normative limits of paternalism, especially by technical policy advisors. One recent suggestion has been that ‘boosting,’ in which interventions aim to enhance people’s general cognitive skills and representational repertoires instead of manipulating their choice environments behind their backs, avoids the main normative challenges. A limitation in most of this literature is that it has focused on relatively sweeping policy recommendations and consequently on strong polar alternatives of general paternalism and strict laissez faire. We review a real instance, drawn from a consulting project we conducted for an investment bank, of a proposed intervention that is more typical of the kind that economists are more often actually called upon to offer. In this example, the sophistication of current tools for preference attribution, combined with philosophical externalism about the semantics of preferences that makes it less plausible to attribute their literal self-conscious representation to people as propositional attitude content becomes more tightly refined, blocks applicability of the distinction between nudging and boosting. This seems to call for irreducible, context-specific ethical judgment in assessing the appropriateness of the forms of paternalism that economists must actually wrestle with in going about their everyday business.