Serena Olsaretti, ed., Preferences and Well-Being [Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 59], Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

In 2004 a conference took place in Cambridge sponsored by the Royal Institute of Philosophy on preferences and well-being. Drawing on the papers presented therein, Serena Olsaretti has prepared with great care a volume that, according to her, is structured around three different sets of questions. Namely, the formulation of normative and descriptive accounts of preference-formation; whether preferences conform with requirements of rationality and what reasons can support them; and finally the normative significance of those preferences that do not meet such requirements, in particular for policy-making purposes. Five papers deal with the first topic, and there are three more for each of the remaining two. So far for the unity of the collection. Its most interesting aspect lies, as usual, in the divergencies. Let me try then another classification.

First, there seems to be quite a divide regarding the theoretical approach to preferences. Whereas the first four papers (by Arneson, Rosati, Brännmark and Qizilbash) apply pure conceptual analysis almost without positive asides, the rest of them stay more or less close to Rational Choice Theory (RCT) in their discussion of preferences. The first set of papers provide a good sample of an ongoing disciplinary debate among moral philosophers about the human good and whether this should be defined in terms of preferences satisfaction or rather by a list of objectively valuable goods –or something hybrid. Central to this debate is the proper formation of preferences: under which conditions our desires will be able to match our conception of well-being. Depending of our conception of the latter different issues will gain or loose prominence. By way of example let us just mention a few ones discussed in this set of papers: information as to the alternatives, motivational force, parental guidance, authorship as to one’s own life, etc. Though informative and interesting, given the formation of my own preferences, I find quite problematic the assumption that these four papers more or less take for granted: that the empirical processes of desire formation are somehow congruent with their normative discussion.

A good measure of the difficulties with this assumption is the contrast between this array of papers and a second one in which the discussion turns around RCT, exploring its conceptual foundations as to the concept of preference. First of all, Hausman and Pettit take issue with one or another aspect of our common understanding of RCT. The former addresses a default principle implicit in game theory, that individuals prefer a comprehensive outcome (in Sen’s terms: the outcome as seen from the path through a game in extensive form that yields it) to the same extent that they prefer its actual result (dissociated from that path). When this principle collapses, consequentialism fails. Pettit argues for a more complex idea of preference based in deliberation. In this account, RCT appears as dealing with a rather restricted case (self-interested tastes, as exhibited by our species and many others).

In other words, if an intendedly positive theory (RCT) only empirically meaningful under such constraints, we may wonder why do we expect better of an abstract examination of the concept of preference, such as the one attempted in the first set of papers. Piller and Broome illustrate a more parsimonious approach to conceptual analysis in continuity with the idea of preference exhibited in RCT. Piller explores the desirability of having a desire and whether we have any reasons to justify it. Broome argues instead that we should reason over our preferences in terms or their content rather than on any second-order requirements on their desirability.

Yet, RCT can be equally contested as an approach to preferences on a purely empirical basis. Here is a third divide, represented in this volume by the papers of Sugden, on the one hand, and Sunstein and Thaler, on the other. They all take issue with the experimental failures of RCT, though with a different aim. Sugden proposes a model of unconsidered (neither coherent nor stable) preferences trying to capture the normative value of satisfying them as they are. Sunstein and Thaler defend a libertarian paternalism, in which the empirical failures of individual rationality would justify the framing of public choices in a way that would paternalistically favour the interests of the agents, despite their incapability to grasp it at first (for instance, opting in or out of insurance schemes). Finally, Voorhoeve draws also on preference change to contest those conceptions of welfare based on preference satisfaction.

Therefore, given that this wonderful conference brought together all these approaches, I would have expected a more explicit discussion of these theoretical divides. Whether RCT provides a better (or worse) framework for the normative discussion of preferences than pure conceptual analysis. Whether we should try to improve the formation of our preferences through RCT, given its experimental failures. And whether we can attribute any normative significance at all to these failures. But these are just my preferences, not a list of objectively valuable questions. Yet, the list of papers compiled is valuable enough to be widely read and discussed.

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