Sustainability Science

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 1233–1246 | Cite as

Social values and sustainability: a retrospective view on the contribution of economics

  • Julian Richard MassenbergEmail author
Special Feature: Review Article Theoretical traditions in social values for sustainability
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Theoretical traditions in social values for sustainability


Since the introduction of the ecosystem services (ES) concept, major discussions within sustainability sciences revolved around the values of nature. In these discussions, environmental economic valuation has been heavily criticised for falling short with regard to conceptual, ethical and methodological issues. In most cases, the critique has been limited to the realm of neoclassical economics. In particular, concerns have been voiced that economic valuation, following its individualistic and instrumental perspective, is unable to capture social values of sustainability. However, the current critique against economic theory does not account for the long traditions in economic theory dealing with social values. This is where this paper steps in: it seeks to review contributions of economic theory to the literature on social values. The aim is to shed light on theories outside neoclassical mainstream economics and to identify recurrent themes in these theories. The identified theories (among others: Kapp’s theory of social cost; Harsanyi’s utilitarianism; Sen’s theories of meta-preferences, commitment and sympathy; Buchanan’s constitutional economics; and Musgrave’s theory of merit goods) emphasise the existence of value categories that transcend individual values and narrow self-interest. Thereby, they may contribute to strengthening the theoretical foundation for the analysis and elicitation of social values of sustainability.


Social values Shared values Traditions in economics Environmental valuation Ecosystem services Ethics 



I am grateful to Bernd Hansjürgens, Nele Lienhoop, Bartosz Bartkowski, Bernd Klauer and Johannes Schiller for critical discussions and constructive comments. I also want to thank Bernd Hansjürgens, Jasper Kenter and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on earlier versions of the paper.


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© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department EconomicsHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZLeipzigGermany

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