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Closing the Circle

Stepping back, I see several ways in which this work in development policy has influenced my academic work. First, this work gives us reason to think that notions of agency are more complex than political philosophers have been inclined to treat them. One of the things that behavioral science makes apparent is that human agency is not a yes/no proposition but instead exists on a continuum. Different environments can make it easier or harder to exercise agency, and devoting cognitive resources to one choice may well deprive us of resources for making the next choice. Indeed, how we understand our agency can be a matter of the perspectives we take on? In the rich world context, we fail to appreciate how many choices (and the consequences for bad ones) we have been able to eliminate. We are allowed to see choice as expressive because we handed over a lot of the more mundane choices to institutions and infrastructure that take care of things for us. If we were to remove some of those safeguards, and take on more choices, we would be in a worse position to make effective choices for ourselves where they count. Poverty is not just harder because you do not have money—it is harder because it is a tax on your cognitive resources.

A second lesson is that the interplay between formal and informal institutions is incredibly important, both in the development context and in the rich world context. Laws are just words on paper unless a whole host of other things go right. For instance, every now and again, I will see friends and colleagues cheer when there is a new UN resolution banning some rights-violating behavior— such as, say, female genital cutting. And while it is nice to see such things, a UN resolution alone does not do much. Female genital cutting is already illegal in every country. Its illegality doesn’t prevent its widespread practice, because the people who practice it simply don’t care about that law. The police don’t care about that law. The judges don’t care about that law. An overly formal or legalistic conception of how to shape people’s behaviors imagines that people will (in general) follow whatever the law says, at least if we’ve established a rule of law. But that’s clearly not the case. Formal institutions may be important, but equally important are the informal institutions that can prop them up or prevent them from functioning. This has led me to a new line of research considering the trade-offs between relying on formal and informal institutions for enforcing social rules.4

A third lesson, or perhaps a reaffirmation, has been the importance of perspectives. Interdisciplinary work is interesting precisely because it brings many different perspectives together. At the same time, it is difficult because it brings those perspectives together, and that can inhibit effective communication. I am convinced that putting multiple perspectives in dialogue with each other is extremely valuable, but those rewards do not come for free. Everyone has to work a bit harder and be able to deal with additional complications and misunderstandings for those benefits to really materialize. It is far easier to stay within one’s disciplinary boundaries, but there is also less to gain. Breaking out of those boundaries is riskier, but substantially more rewarding. In recent work, I have tried to show that the benefits of this mixing of perspectives is in part a product of the difficulty.5


  • 1 For more detail, see Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) by S. Mullainathan and E. Shafir.
  • 2 In particular, I developed new models of norm dynamics based on examples from the field. This led to two papers, R. Muldoon, C. Lisciandra, C. Bicchieri, S. Hartmann, and J. Sprenger, “On The Emergence of Descriptive Norms,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 13, No. 3, 377-394, and R. Muldoon, C. Lisciandra, and S. Hartmann, “Why are there Descriptive Norms? Because We Looked for Them,” Synthese 191, No. 18, 4409-4429.
  • 3 I develop this at some length in R. Muldoon, “Perspectives, Norms and Agency,” Social Philosophy and Policy 34, No. 1, 260-276.
  • 4 “Norms, Nudges and Autonomy,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy (2018), David Boonin (ed.), 225-233, develops a normative framework for considering the relative costs of formal and informal institutions.
  • 5 R. Muldoon, “The Paradox of Diversity,” Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy 16, 807-820.
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