Monday, October 7, 2013

Mommy, Where Do Preferences Come From?


If you're trying to think about what is the thing to do or what you owe to others or how society can be organized and you want to avoid making grand pronouncements about Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and Wholesome v. Debased, your fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of "preferences."

People all along the ethical and political spectrum have treated preferences as a kind of neutral building block for impartial decision-making.

The utilitarian Peter Singer, who argues that middle class Americans to give up most of their money, does so on grounds that we ought maximize universal preference satisfaction. As long as your ten dollars will bring about more satisfaction to a poor person far away then it will to you today, Singer says, you have to give it away.

The contractarian David Gauthier, taking our interactions to be negotiations, argues rational people won't give up too much of what they otherwise could have had; the powerful may use their power in making deals to get more of what they want. What forms the basis for judging outcomes? Preferences. 


When Leavitt and Dubner -- surely representing some extreme version of something -- infer, in Freakonomics, that fighting climate change is pointless because "[i]t's not that we don't know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don't want to stop, or aren't willing to pay the price" -- they're appealing to -- yes, preferences.

All this to say: they are everywhere. And you can see how something like this might have gotten going. For a long time there was talk of what was in people's "interest" -- but how can we say a thing is in someone's "interest" if that person does not, themselves, prefer it? Isn't that patronizing? Then the utilitarians back the day (like Mill, 1863) talked about increasing pleasure and decreasing pain. Not a bad idea -- but as is often pointed out, pleasure and pain aren't the only thing we care about. We have other things we want - other, "preferences," if you will.

A move to preferences and -- voilà! problems solved. Appeals to preferences answered various puzzles in one fell swoop: what's in someone's interest is just whatever they think is in their interest, i. e. whatever they prefer (assuming their preferences are transitive and obey other complex conditions that you could write a whole post about but we won't bother going into here).

But with preferences -- can we just say, "I have issues"? And you should too.

As is often noted -- indeed, as is said so often it's become like background noise -- preferences don't come from nowhere. They are shaped by our socio-cultural surroundings; they are shaped by the options available to us, and they are shaped by our own choices.

As we've known for -- oh, only a few hundred years -- things like "habit" or "custom" are profound shapers of preferences. As Jon Elster clarified in the 20th century, preferences are sometimes "adaptive" -- as in the fable of the "sour grapes" we often come not to want, or even think about, those things that seem unavailable to us.

It never ceases to weird me out that in our world we've set things up so that powerful forces -- a. k. a. advertising, are set up to induce in us preferences, whose satisfaction is then regarded as a "good thing" -- on grounds that a preference was satisfied.

There's something shell-game-ish about that -- and I think the reason is that in some sense, the neutrality and impartiality of "preferences" is a fake-out.

Because you can't say you're setting aside Good v. Bad and then say the satisfaction of preferences is Good. As soon as you deem the satisfaction of preferences a good thing, you're already on that train, you've opened that can of worms, there's that whole ball of wax, insert your favorite complexity metaphor here.

And as the advertising example shows, deeming equally strong preferences as equally worth of satisfaction will always give an advantage to anyone who can shape other people's preferences. We all know who that will be: the rich, the connected, and the politically powerful.

Finally, the fact that we know preferences can be shaped means we're constantly confronting the question of which preferences are good and which ones aren't. We're evaluating our preferences. Some, like a preference for kindness, are worth fostering. Others, like a preference for cruelty, are worth eliminating. To evaluate your preferences you need some other standard of judgement.

It seems to me that standard cannot simply be one's own further preferences -- because if nothing else, that doesn't explain parenting. In parenting you confront, for real in the most serious way, the question of which preferences to encourage and which to discourage in another person. A parent who did this by consulting what would be most convenient and satisfying for them personally would be universally acknowledged to be committing a parenting FAIL.

The upshot of all this, it seems to me, is that while preferences are certainly significant, it is crucial to remember that preferences are not just things we have, they are things that come from somewhere, and some of those sources are better than others, and they are things we take a certain standpoint toward. Even with respect to ourselves, we endorse some; we decry others.

It's from the standpoint of this kind of evaluation of preferences that we know what matters to us. And once you're talking about what matters, you're pretty much back at Good v. Bad and Right v. Wrong and the whole nine yards.

So yes, appeal to preferences, but don't kid yourself you've somehow slid out from under the Big Problems of Life.

1 comment:

Hida Viloria said...

Fantastic, insightful piece -- thanks!!!!!