Does the Law Change Preferences?

Theoretical Inquiries in Law 22 (2):175-213 (2021)


“I would prefer not”HERMAN MELVILLE, BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER: A STORY OF WALL STREET, reprinted in THE PIAZZA TALES 32, 48. Scholars have recently challenged the claim in classical deterrence theory that law influences behavior only through the expected sanction imposed. Some go further and argue that law may also “shape preferences,” changing people’s wants and values. In this Article, we analyze existing claims that criminal and civil law alter preferences and conclude that none suggest that the law shapes preferences. We first clarify this preference-shaping claim by elaborating the structure of rational choice theory generally and “preference” in particular. We then investigate three mechanisms of legal influence suggested by the preference-shaping literature: the “serious harm” mechanism; the “social norm” mechanism; and the “self-improvement” mechanism. We then show that each of these mechanisms operates by changing the agent’s beliefs about the attributes or consequences of her choice options rather than by changing her preferences.

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The Economic Analysis of Law.Lewis Kornhauser - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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