Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality

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Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality by Jon Elster

After all, if the choice of smokers to smoke were completely irrational, then why is it that when the price of cigarettes goes up, their consumption goes down? Economically, there is much about the behaviour of addicts that displays characteristics of rational economic choice.

I would counter that this is correct to a certain extent, but that addictive products display a notable lack of demand elasticity — although demand falls when prices rise, the reaction of demand to price is much less sensitive than it is with, say, pickles or ice cream. If the price of heroin goes up, although a few addicts may kick, many will simply steal more purses to keep up with the rise in price.

Few turn to crime to support their taste for expensive ice cream. There are many good reasons not to accept a rational choice theory of addiction. For an excellent critique, see Rogeberg Satisfying Preferences: Whose?

Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality

Ulysses and the Sirens very much concerns the difficulty of whose preferences are to be satisfied. We might say that, in utilitarian or rational choice fashion, the preferences of all agents are to be given equal consideration. But Elster complicates this by showing us that each of those agents is composed of an indefinite number of intertemporal agents with possibly conflicting preferences, and with no clear cut indication of which of these selves is to have normative priority.

Sour Grapes takes things to a deeper level. Whereas economics pretends to be a descriptive rather than a prescriptive or normative science, Elster examines the nature of desires to demonstrate that it might not be so easy for economics to avoid normative prescriptions.

Their task then becomes the technocratically straightforward one of figuring out how best to satisfy the greatest number of them. By contrast, Elster shows that not all desires are worthy of being satisfied.

Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality

Now, on the face of it this is nothing new; moral philosophers have been saying as much since the time of Socrates. But Elster is not just concerned with the immoral nature of some desires. No economist in his right mind denies that satisfying the desires of sadists is on all fours with satisfying the desires of people with less perverted tastes.

But the economist will try to parse this in terms of utility: they will say that as a matter of contingent fact, one satisfied sadist must mean one or more normal people must be made very dis satisfied victims of the sadists, the predictable result of which would be net disutility. But notice that they are still taken into account. This explanatory scheme might give economists some rationale for discriminating against the wants of sadists, although not on the grounds that the desires of sadists were wrong or immoral.

After all, if it so happened that sadists and masochists were evenly distributed in the population and could somehow be paired up, the economists might have to revise their judgment, and take the preferences of sadists and masochists seriously.

Edited by Jacob T. Levy

Indeed, his analysis implies that rationality is so easily subverted, that we ought not to put too much stock in the satisfaction of preferences at all, at least not unless we are willing to roll up our sleeves and examine the nature of the preferences we propose to satisfy. We tend to think that preferences have at least some minimal rational ordering.


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Path-Dependency and Context Dependency. Often our preferences are path-dependent in that they are dependent on my previous history of choices and desires. In other words, they depend heavily on the temporal order in which choices are presented. Preferences are also context-dependent in that they are responsive to changes in the situational variables in the choice-context.

So what is my real preference, the one that economists should be trying to figure out how to satisfy? One each of x, y and z is up for auction. The point is that our desires and preferences are closely tied to our previous experience and life history.

For example, it is highly unlikely that I will have a preference for fine wines if no wine at all has ever passed my lips. If Ulysses and the Sirens demonstrated the importance of the time dimension in human preference, Sour Grapes demonstrates the importance of how preferences are formed. Adaptive Preferences. Elster brings our attention to a phenomenon similar to sour grapes, which he calls adaptive preferences. The latter differs from the former in the fact that where the fox pretends not to like the grapes he cannot have, a person with an adaptive preference actually prefers precisely that which he can have over that which he cannot.

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