Our Malleable Preferences: Part 2
Photo Credit: Elle Neill at Naples, Italy
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
– Adam Smith
The famous quotation from Adam Smith illustrates what is the defining feature of modern economics – the idea that economic exchanges lead to everyone’s being better off.
But is this true if preferences are malleable? No. And what does the malleability of preferences have to do with flourishing? A lot.
Orthodox economics has little to say about whether some preferences are better than others, or whether and how preferences can change; nor does it discuss whether individual utility (using orthodox economics language) could be increased by consciously shaping preferences.
In a previous article, (Our Malleable Preferences 1) we posed 4 (well, 5) questions about the implications of our malleable preferences:
- Should we care about the malleability of preferences?
- Are certain preferences more conducive to flourishing than others?
- Does flourishing require that an individual have (some) control over how preferences change over time? 3a: How can this be achieved?
- Should the state through public policy – in its attempt to foster flourishing – actively try to manipulate its population’s preferences?
In Malleable Preferences 1, we answered the 1st of these questions (yes -”In a world where preferences are not fixed, and where the shaping of individual preferences is complex and influenced by many factors and groups, avoiding uncomfortable questions around these issues will certainly lead to poor flourishing.”).
Here, we look more closely at questions 3 and 4, given that question 2 is both too easy and too difficult to answer: clearly, a few preferences are universally noxious to flourishing; clearly, a few other preferences are universally conducive to flourishing; and, most clearly, there is enormous room for debate and an impossibility of quantifying for the majority of preferences whether or not they promote flourishing. The difficulty of answering Question 2, however, has a significant impact on how we ultimately define what it means for an individual to flourish.1)We address this at greater length in the book, forthcoming. But, overall, we acknowledge that there is a wide variety of preferences that are conducive to flourishing. So while there are some obvious preferences that should be discouraged (or illegal, as some are), some others must be deemed a matter of acceptable choice. The acceptability of the malleability of preferences for defining flourishing necessitates that we begin to think of flourishing in complex terms that go beyond meeting a list of fundamental needs and desires to defining a state of mind and the ways it can be achieved in humans.
In addressing Question 3, we understand that self-conscious agency has to be part of flourishing. So we must be reflective about our preferences. Put another way, we don’t believe that someone who is completely unreflective about their preferences can truly be flourishing, because their agency lacks self-consciousness.
In fact, self-conscious agency is more central to flourishing than some of the other critical flourishing dimensions – it’s perfectly possible (although more challenging) to flourish despite ill health, but a lack of self-conscious agency is a lack of personal freedom as autonomy. In ill health, I can yet choose my attitude and course of action through the exercise of conscious choice.
Possessing self-conscious agency, then, implies that I have knowledge of and control over my preferences. Some I will choose to act on (such as wanting to be a better writer) and some I should probably not act on (like trying bungee jumping).
Andrew examined this issue in his original PhD thesis (30 years ago) as a central part of the critique against economic utility theory:
by developing the capacity for autonomy, the individual gains a certain measure of control over his preferences, as well as a critical awareness of the existence of competing preferences. In this way, preferences become truly his.2)From Andrew Nevin’s doctoral thesis, “A Philosophical Critique of Utility Theory.”
Of course, this is not a new idea. Philosophers from Epicurus to J. S. Mill to Nietzsche have recognized this in some form. And Existentialism is of course founded on it. But linking it with flourishing, a particular form of well-being and happiness, is an idea that can stand at the core of economic reform. In her book, Rites of Privacy and the Privacy Trade: On the Limits of Protection for the Self, Neill takes on the connection between autonomy and flourishing, deepening it by discussing flourishing in the context of constructing a theory of human rights, and arguing that privacy and autonomy (as self-determination through conscious agency) are at the core of the flourishing that grounds our sense of human dignity. Understanding ourselves as possessing dignity because of our natural autonomy leads individuals to value the flourishing of others. She states “that people who have been allowed to flourish materially and socially will construct their own and others’ dignity, as well as rights to those things [that promote human dignity].” 3)Elizabeth Neill, Rites of Privacy and the Privacy Trade: On the Limits if Protection for the Self. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001: p. 120. Flourishing, then, demands that our human dignity be respected, and human dignity demands autonomy, at its core.
This has profound implications for the education system. We all understand that, in some sense, public education (in the Canadian sense) must prepare children for adulthood, but to prepare them to be flourishing as self-conscious agents requires reflection and reform with respect to education policies spanning curriculum, discipline (“classroom management”), and the types of relationships that exist between educational institutions, students, and the broader society. Hence, while we’ve here answered the first part of Question 3 (Does flourishing require that an individual have [some] control over how preferences change over time?), we leave the answer to the second part of Question 3: How can this be achieved? to Flourishing in Canada: How to be Capable of Living the Good Life.
It is when we look to Question 4 that we see some classical tension emerging between flourishing as self-conscious agency and flourishing as the avoidance of harm; here we attempt to define the legitimate role of the state as arbiter. We believe:
- The state, through the education system and other means, has an obligation to promote self-conscious agency to the fullest extent possible among its citizens. This will help to foster flourishing.
- We can agree on some preferences that the state would actively discourage in 2 categories: (i) those preferences that demonstrably harm the individual (e.g. smoking), and (ii) those preferences that harm other individuals, as well as possibly the individual with the preference (e.g. a preference for violence towards others is something the state will actively try to manipulate and be supported in doing so).
- However, the list of preferences for which there is likely to be consensus on the legitimacy of state intervention is going to be very small. Indeed, some of our most divisive social issues surround questions of whether specific groups of people in society should be allowed to exercise their preferences. LGBTQ, race, religious, and gender equality issues historically come to mind, and although Canada has made great legislative strides on those fronts, the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 digs deeper than ad hoc policy to rid our political system of its racism and disregard for under-served populations. Some people have preferences about other people’s preferences, even when these do not appear to cause overt harm.
We take a strong stance on the third point. At the core of flourishing is its availability to all, and each of us flourishes by finding – and having the opportunity to find – our own path. As long as my path does not overtly harm anyone, my pursuit of my preferences should be viewed as legitimate, particularly if there is a high degree of self-conscious agency in society. Moreover, it is not legitimate to act upon preferences about other people’s preferences, if those others’ holding and/or acting upon their preferences cannot cause overt harm.
So, if the first 2 conditions from above are satisfied – we develop self-conscious agency and the state attempts to manipulate preferences only around clearly harmful activities – then we’re likely to end up in a good place as far as flourishing is concerned. The difficult details both of how to restructure education toward assuring self-conscious agency for adults and of how to resolve grey-area cases of defining harm, we discuss in Flourishing in Canada: How to become Capable of Living the Good Life.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||We address this at greater length in the book, forthcoming. But, overall, we acknowledge that there is a wide variety of preferences that are conducive to flourishing. So while there are some obvious preferences that should be discouraged (or illegal, as some are), some others must be deemed a matter of acceptable choice. The acceptability of the malleability of preferences for defining flourishing necessitates that we begin to think of flourishing in complex terms that go beyond meeting a list of fundamental needs and desires to defining a state of mind and the ways it can be achieved in humans.|
|2.||↑||From Andrew Nevin’s doctoral thesis, “A Philosophical Critique of Utility Theory.”|
|3.||↑||Elizabeth Neill, Rites of Privacy and the Privacy Trade: On the Limits if Protection for the Self. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001: p. 120.|