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Early in the educational process, the novice social science student is typically introduced to two kinds of research: positive and normative. Positive social science is allegedly about what is—the unbiased, objective facts of the world, untainted by value judgments of an ethical, political, or aesthetic sort. By contrast, normative social science is about what ought to be. Apparently unlike positive science, normative social science admits to bias, subjectivity, the moral taint. Much confusion has arisen from the alleged positive/normative distinction, a distinction that is known in philosophy circles as the fact/value dichotomy.
Advanced students of social science, excluding some students of sociology and most students of anthropology, are not encouraged any more than are beginners to clarify the nature of the confusion. Most philosophers, but to repeat, only a few social scientists, reply that this is because the distinction between positive and normative, facts and values, what is and what ought to be, cannot be clarified; they are inextricably entangled.
The word normative descends from the Latin norma, meaning a carpenter’s T-square, a rule, or a prescription. In ordinary English, a norm is what is expected, what is customary, what is habitual. In mathematics, the norm is a standard unit. In economic discourse, ever since John Neville Keynes (1852–1949) published his influential On the Scope and Method of Political Economy (1891), normative conflates the Latin norma and the ordinary English norm, yielding something like, as Keynes put it, a “regulative science … a body of systematized knowledge discussing criteria of what ought to be.” Like his muse, David Hume (1711–1776), Keynes (father of the great economist John Maynard Keynes [1883–1946]) believed that “confusion between [positive and normative] has been the source of many mischievous errors” and urged “a distinct positive science of political economy” (Keynes 1891, quoted in Friedman 1953, p. 3).
Normative Social Science and Novelty in Economics
While contemporary social scientists take a liking to Keynes’s prescription and the allure of the distinctly positive, historians and philosophers have settled on something like the exact opposite: they argue that the failure to acknowledge the normative element in the allegedly positive social sciences has been the source of mischievous errors.
The distinguished economist and philosopher Amartya Sen provides an example of such an error. For much of his career Sen (the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics) has been preoccupied with four areas of research: social choice, preference theory, capabilities, and the economics of poverty and famine. For example, in Inequality Reexamined (1992), he brings attention to a contradiction in “positive” preference theory, an error with ethical and political ramifications. Sen observes that economists and an increasingly large number of sociologists and political scientists accept “individual choice” and “revealed preference” to be foundational concepts in their positive science. Therefore, they argue, statistical measurements of income and consumption, and even the data from social surveys, are capable of extracting the parameters of “desire” or, to use the utilitarian term, of “happiness” achieved at various levels. Utility functions themselves cannot be observed. But the choice set of a rational economic actor is, by the logic of choice, relative price, and revealed preference, de facto observable, and so (indirectly) is a person’s desire. But, Sen observes, impoverishment and deprivation can so reduce a person’s desire and self-worth that what they say and do about their own desire is far below—and different from—what they would actually do (let alone what they “should” do) were they in fact flourishing at normal levels. According to Sen:
The problem is particularly acute in the context of entrenched inequalities and deprivations. A thoroughly deprived person, leading a very reduced life, might not appear to be badly off in terms of the metric of desire and its fulfillment, if the hardship is accepted with non-grumbling resignation. In situations of long-standing deprivation, the victims do not go on grieving and lamenting all the time, and very often make great efforts to take pleasure in small mercies and to cut down personal desires to modest—“realistic”—proportions.… The extent of a person’s deprivation may not at all show up in the metric of desire-fulfill-ment, even though he or she may be quite unable to be adequately nourished, decently clothed, minimally educated, and properly sheltered. (Sen 1992, quoted in Putnam 2002, p. 59)
As the philosopher Hilary Putnam puts it, “ ‘Capabilities,’ in Sen’s sense, are not simply value functionings”; that is, they are not continuous utility functions derived from a preexisting and exogenously given preference ordering. They are “freedoms to enjoy valuable functionings”; that is, they are social and economic preconditions for performing a job well, keeping a clean house, casting a democratic vote, or reading a book by Adam Smith (Putnam 2002, p. 59). Social scientists disagree about what counts as a value functioning, and, importantly, on how one would go about measuring them in a capabilities approach. For example, will an annual income of $20,000 (in constant 2008 dollars) suffice, by Sen’s standards, for a family of four living in the United States? Or is income level alone a lame metric of deprivation? What, if anything, should society do to help expose and heal any wounds of deprivation? The point of the example is not to answer a policy question; it is to suggest that normative judgments reside deep in the heart of the neoclassical preference-theoretic approach.
Thomas Schelling, Albert O. Hirschman, and other economists have found it easy to identify other mischievous errors in economics caused by an unexamined faith in positive analysis. For example, in “Against Parsimony: Three Easy Ways of Complicating Some Categories of Economic Discourse” (1984), Hirschman, working in a vein similar to his Princeton colleague, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, shows that metapreferences—preferences over preferences—are a proper object of economic analysis, more realistic, more humane, but also capable of some prediction.
Metapreferences are about the kind of self one would like to be in the future, not the self one is today, at current prices and budget constraints. Metapreferences require reflection, the ability to step back and evaluate the spiritual and material constitution and direction of one’s life. Bigots, for example, may find on reflection that they prefer human equality and the Golden Rule; party animals may decide on reflection that they are better off sober (or at least drinking less and at home with family and friends rather than in expensive nightclubs with strangers). If the metapreferences differ from the actual, Hirschman notes, then eventually, of course, one could expect to observe a preference change. How to observe a preference change is a matter of usual scientific debate and invention (Hirschman 1982 ; Kuran 1995). But the main point here is that reflection about one’s future self is itself a value judgment, even if one does not change one’s preferences. So if an economist assumes in an economic model, following the positive approach of Milton Friedman (1912–2006) and Gary S. Becker, that people have, for instance, a “taste for discrimination” (Becker  1971) or excessive partying or nationalism, then at minimum economists are obliged to state that they are examining the wanton, and not the reflective, side of human life. But that move, Hirschman and Sen would probably agree, reveals a normative judgment in positive economics. It makes transparent the assertion of human wantonness.
Normative and positive continue to figure prominently in social science discourse and education. But the distinction rests on the so-called fact/value dichotomy, long collapsed.
- Becker, Gary.  The Economics of Discrimination. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Cullenberg, Stephen, Jack Amariglio, and David F. Ruccio, 2001. Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge. London: Routledge.
- Friedman, M 1953. Essays in Positive Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Gordon, 1991. The History and Philosophy of Social Science. London: Routledge.
- Hirschman, Albert  2002. Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Hirschman, Albert 1984. Against Parsimony: Three Easy Ways of Complicating Some Categories of Economic Discourse. American Economic Review 74 (2): 89–96.
- Keynes, John N 1891. The Scope and Method of Political Economy. London, New York: Macmillan.
- Kuran, Timur. Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Megill, Allan, 1994. Rethinking Objectivity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sen, Amar 1992. Inequality Reexamined. New York: Sage; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Taylor, Charles 1996. Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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