Student Blogger - Adaptive Preferences and the Deliciousness of Equal Rights
A Thirsty fox once saw some fine
Ripe grapes that hung on a tall vine
“Just what I’m longing for!” cried he,
And sprang to get them eagerly.
Alas! the clusters hung so high,
He could not reach them. By and by,
Finding his efforts all in vain,
His longing turned into disdain;
“They’re only fit,” snarled he, “for Apes.
What do I want with sour grapes!”
- The Hereford Aesop
A prominent argument against a moral framework oriented around preference satisfaction is that preferences are prone to distortion due to one’s situation. The fox, asked about his preference for grapes at the end of his efforts-all-in-vain, reports an affirmative distaste for them. A welfarist, it is argued, who sought the best allocation of fruits among the attendees at the forest animal cocktail party, would find nothing wrong in allocating no grapes to the fox, based on this revealed distaste. So the fox is deprived of grapes he doesn’t want, so what?
A non-Aesop example of this phenomenon—commonly termed “adaptive preferences”—might be the case of women who have become accustomed to life in a culture that subjects them to systematic oppression. What response is appropriate if these women report that they have no preference for greater autonomy or more equal rights? Professor David Weisbach, speaking with the Law & Philosophy Workshop, argued that phenomena that look like adaptive preferences can readily be explained within the welfarist framework as stable preferences under changed circumstances. In general, this looks a lot like learning, a phenomenon for which the welfarist has developed analytical tools.
A non-Aesop example of this phenomenon—commonly termed “adaptive preferences”—might be the case of women who have become accustomed to life in a culture that subjects them to systematic oppression. What response is appropriate if these women report that they have no preference for greater autonomy or more equal rights?
Professor David Weisbach, speaking with the Law & Philosophy Workshop, argued that phenomena that look like adaptive preferences can readily be explained within the welfarist framework as stable preferences under changed circumstances. In general, this looks a lot like learning, a phenomenon for which the welfarist has developed analytical tools.
If adaptive preferences cannot be distinguished from stable preferences with learning, then an appeal to adaptive preferences might not look to be such a serious challenge to the welfarist framework. If the raccoon offers the fox one of her grapes at the cocktail party and the fox learns just how delicious grapes are, the fox now has a more complete set of data against which to order his preferences.
For those, like Weisbach, who argue that the preferences revealed might not be the preferences selected with more complete information, the move is to develop tools to suggest that true welfare is a function of informed preferences, or those preferences that people would have, given an ideal (different) set of circumstances.
A concern voiced in different ways from several members of the workshop was that if we make this move away from the completely subjective revealed preferences, it would seem that we need some moral theory to help us identify when a change in circumstances and the resulting preferences are positive (thereby requiring some form of multiplying effect) or negative (requiring a discount).
For instance, one participant asked about an adult who after being beaten as a child does not have a strong preference for bodily integrity. We might suggest that the beatings represented a change in circumstance that altered the adult’s preferences. But surely we would not correct for this type of alteration for those lucky enough not to have experienced beatings in childhood. We view the beatings as causing the distortion, not as “informing” preferences. If we, however, do think that the adult’s preferences after therapy reflect “informed” preferences, then are we essentially picking and choosing the types of change in circumstance that qualify as properly informing the preferences reported?
It is hard to imagine that beatings could leave a child better off. But can “better off” be defined in terms of “informed” preference satisfaction if “informed” simply means: under circumstances that leave the person better off?
One workshop participant offered that childhood beatings or cult indoctrinations shape preferences by distorting cognitive processes. Perhaps informed preferences ought properly to refer only to preferences shaped by undistorted cognitive processes. But can we confidently identify when an experience changes a preference set as a result of distorted rather than undistorted cognition?
Related to this question, another participant wondered whether we should allow religious parents to keep their children out of school to avoid their learning about “worldly values”. (See Wisconsin v Yoder.) Don’t our educational decisions at least shape cognitive processes? If so, then might the label “distorted” simply reflect a value judgment about approved and disapproved cognitive shaping?
What if we are convinced that some forms of preference distortion are so severe that no changed information set would generate changed preferences? Should we force the fox to put six grapes on his plate—in lieu of the strawberries he loves—just because we are afraid his frustrating grape-getting episode left him with the wrong preferences? What if some women would not prefer to live in a society with gender equality even after becoming fully aware of the alternatives? Given limited resources, Weisbach is skeptical that we ought to pursue such rights at the expense of other welfare-enhancing goods.