Journal of Evolutionary Economics

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 539–561 | Cite as

Soft paternalism and subjective well-being: how happiness research could help the paternalist improve individuals’ well-being

  • Martin BinderEmail author
Regular Article


Soft paternalists claim to respect individuals’ preferences by trying to nudge them towards actions that would satisfy said preferences if they were suitably informed and debiased. This paper argues that soft paternalists neither respect preferences nor credibly improve individuals’ welfare through their nudges, as these are based on ad hoc judgements of what individuals’ informed preferences would look like. Recourse to an evolutionary economics methodology and empirical research on subjective well-being can solve the problem of establishing individuals’ interests and offers an “ex post” welfare test to find out to what extent revealed preferences are actually distorted or not. Individual welfare should always be based on ex post liking, not “ex ante” wanting, both of which do not necessarily coincide. The (evolutionary) process-view of well-being defended in this paper focuses on a number of important issues regarding the dissociation of wanting and liking and how nudges will be affected by this distinction (including phenomena such as faulty affective forecasting, hedonic adaptation and induced preference change).


Subjective well-being Soft paternalism Libertarian paternalism Wanting Liking Ex post 

JEL Classification

D18 D63 I31 D91 



I wish to thank Leonhard K. Lades for helpful discussions and valuable input. Thank you also to Michael Asslaender, Lisa Herzog, Martin Kolmar, Christian Neuhaeuser, Ingo Pies and the other participants at the meeting of the Ausschuss Wirtschaft und Ethik of the Verein fuer Socialpolitik in Zittau 2016. Anonymous referees provided guidance in revising the manuscript, my thanks to them. Errors are my own.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interests

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bard College BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Levy Economics Institute of Bard CollegeBlithewood, Bard CollegeNew YorkUSA

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