Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Malleability of Preference

In a recent story published on the NPR website, Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich writes about the recent research around the collapse of civilization on Easter Island. In the past, the assumption was that the people of Easter Island did not last long after the last tree was chopped down on the island. For a people who depended on wood to build boats for deep-sea fishing, it seemed unlikely they would have survived long without wood.

New research, however, paints an even more terrifying picture of what happened after the last tree went down on Easter Island. According to anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, the residents of Easter Island likely lived for years and years afterwards, eating resident rats and living in comparative squalor to their previous arrangement.

When Europeans came across this post-wood society, however, the people did not beg for food, they bartered for hats and other trinkets. This suggests that the people of Easter Island did not consider themselves in squalor, but rather adjusted their preferences to cope with their limited resources. As Krulwich says in his story,
It's like the story people used to tell about Tang, a sad, flat synthetic orange juice popularized by NASA. If you know what real orange juice tastes like, Tang is no achievement. But if you are on a 50-year voyage, if you lose the memory of real orange juice, then gradually, you begin to think Tang is delicious. On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.
Another example that has been brought up to underscore the ability of people to dial back their preferences is that of concentration camps. People find ways to cope in times of distress, and it usually takes the form of a shift in preferences and priorities.

But we don't have to look to the extreme examples of Easter Islanders, astronauts, and concentration camps to see preferences being dialed back. The boy born into a family with a history of drug and alcohol abuse often sees no way to succeed outside of a life of crime, like Omaha killer Nikko Jenkins. Someone who has never had a family member in college is more likely to want to go to college than someone who has two parents graduate college.

These examples point to a quality of our preferences that is often ignored by economists and free-market dogmatists. This is the malleability of preferences. Preferences are often treated as a metaphysical inevitability. Much of classical liberal economic thought is built around an idea that our preferences are some way natural, fixed, and self-affirming. However, when we look around at examples in the lives of others or engage in honest self-reflection, we realize the fragility and variability of our preferences.

If we want to use economics to improve our lives and the lives of others, we need to drop the fetishized view of preferences and understand them for what they are: malleable manifestations of an interaction with our environments. While many utilitarians thought they could save their line of thought by an appeal to preferences rather than happiness, preference-fulfillment favors those already situated to form preferences that will lead to greater personal fulfillment.

Thus, it becomes incumbent on a society that is committed to the tenant of equal opportunity to provide the ability for individuals from all different backgrounds the equal opportunity to form preferences that will enable them to live meaningful lives. In the words of Amartya Sen,
Social and economic factors such as basic education, elementary health care, and secure employment are important not only on their own, but also for the role they play in giving people the opportunity to approach the world with courage and freedom.
An honest approach to a just society will not only address preference fulfillment, but also preference determination.

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