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Daily RC Article 173

Challenging Preferences: Amartya Sen's Adaptive Perspective and Policy Dilemmas


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Amartya Sen questions the traditional liberal view that we should accept that the choices people make in their lives are a reasonable indicator of the subjective value they attach to the choices concerned. The notion of adaptive preference emphasises how the values that people express can be conditioned by the social environment and more specifically by oppressive structures – such as, those that emphasise asymmetric gender relationships within the household. According to Sen, we cannot always trust in the revealed preferences of individual agents as reflecting their ‘true’ best interests because faced with structures that narrow their range of options people may ‘adapt’ to their environment by ‘accepting’ their lot and lowering expectations of what life has to offer. Just as ‘libertarian paternalists’ attribute the difference between the ‘revealed preferences’ of people for fatty foods or a low savings rate and their ‘real’ preferences to cognitive biases, Sen focuses on the role of ‘adaptation’ in accounting for the difference between the subjectively expressed beliefs of actors and their underlying ‘objective’ interests. The assumption in both of these cases is that these biases can be addressed via appropriate policy interventions

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There are two fundamental problems with this line of analysis. First, it is far from evident that there is anything ‘wrong’ with people adapting their preferences to their particular circumstances. One might adapt one’s desires to be an Olympic athlete, or a champion boxer to the realities of one’s physical limitations. Most people would consider adaptation of this nature entirely rational and indeed essential to having any hope in finding satisfaction from life.

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Second, one can accept the point that cognitive biases may prevent people from getting ‘what they really want’, but it is another matter to suggest that public policy should play a major role in dealing with these biases. For there to be any chance of success in this regard policy-makers need to be able to distinguish between the ‘real preferences’ or the ‘objective interests’ of people and those preferences that result from cognitive biases. In the case of libertarian paternalists they need to distinguish preferences for fatty food that are ‘genuine’ from those that are distorted by ‘weakness of will’. In the case of Sen’ s adaptive preferences, policy makers need to judge whether a woman’s endorsement of asymmetric gender roles reflects her ‘real’ beliefs or whether these beliefs are a reflection of an overly-constrained social environment. They would need to decide whether this adaptation is rational in the face of social circumstances which cannot realistically be changed, or whether it results from a more malleable set of conditions. There is little reason to suppose that policy makers are able to make such distinctions competently and yet in the absence of this competence the danger is that public policy will collapse into a more conventional form of paternalism – which claims to know what preferences people should have.

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Sen’s commitment to interventionist methods to widen the horizons of women reflects a view that traditional gender roles are morally problematic and must therefore be ‘explained’ by the existence of oppressive structures. I have sympathy with Sen’s distaste for asymmetric family relations, but I do not believe they are a matter for public policy. Better to rely on trade, economic growth and the cross-cultural contact this brings as the best route to unintentionally expose women to the wider world and what it has to offer.

Amartya Sen challenges the idea that individual choices always reflect true preferences, introducing the concept of adaptive preference shaped by social structures. However, the author questions the need for public policy to intervene in shaping preferences, arguing that determining "real preferences" is complex and policy makers may lack competence in making such distinctions. The author suggests relying on trade, economic growth, and cross-cultural exposure to address issues like gender roles instead of interventionist methods.
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