Adaptive preferences, capabilities, and Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator

Wells, Thomas (2014). 'Adaptive preferences, capabilities, and Adam Smith's Impartial Spectator' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

In building his case for evaluating advantage in terms of what people are able to be and to do (i.e. their capability), a central argument given by Amartya Sen against welfarist alternatives is the problem of 'adaptive preferences'. He claims that subjective well-being alone is a poor guide to real advantage, and thus a poor basis for interpersonal comparisons of advantage, because many deprived people have had to come to terms with their material and social deprivation in order to survive. Their wants and aspirations, or their sense of well-being (happiness), cannot be relied upon to track their authentic interests or even their physical well-being since they may be a product of their circumstances. Sick people may believe they are in good health; oppressed people may express contentment about their treatment; and so on. As Sen puts it,

'The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible. It is thus important to take note of the fact that in the scale of utilities, the deprivation of the persistently deprived may look muffled and muted, but also to favour the creation of conditions in which people have real opportunities of judging the kind of lives they would like to lead.' (Sen 1999, 63)

This paper is concerned with the problem of adaptive preferences. First, what exactly are they? There are several definitions in the capability literature (notably those by Jon Elster and Martha Nussbaum), and Sen's own use of the term does not identify a single mechanism but rather a family of problems relating to deformations of practical reasoning under conditions of material deprivation and social oppression.

Second, what is the problem of adaptive preferences? It has been argued, most notably by David Clark, that even very deprived people do generally have aspirations for a better life. Therefore, he argues, adaptive preferences are not a practical problem, but at most a merely theoretical issue (Clark 2009; Clark 2012). I argue that this dismissal is premature. Adaptive preferences present a significant practical problem, not only to people's lives but also to the credibility of the capability approach to evaluation.

Third, can the capability approach itself address the issue of adaptation? Unfortunately, it would seem, not that well. First, the capability approach may be interpreted as being concerned only with the evaluation of the 'objective' well-being aspect of people's lives, and parenthesise the 'subjective' agency aspect (the idea that the evaluation of an individual's opportunities should relate to what kind of lives she has reason to value). This has paternalistic implications. Second, we may follow Martha Nussbaum's proposal to disregard adaptive preferences that go against our best understanding of the requirements of human dignity. Governments, through laws and social policies, should simply make her list of central capabilities are available to everyone. Yet disregarding the evaluation of adaptation would leave us unable to distinguish whether those who do not realise those valuable functionings are doing so freely or as a result of adaptation.

In this paper I propose a different approach. Following Sen's own extensive use of Adam Smith's concept of the 'impartial spectator' as 'a device for reasoned self-scrutiny' (Sen 2012, 104), I propose framing the problem of adaptation in terms of preferences that would not survive its 'transpositional' scrutiny. This makes two practical contributions. First, the impartial spectator provides a model for judicious, respectful but engaged scrutiny of suspected adaptation by social scientists using the capability approach. Second, with respect to remediation, it suggests how 'to favour the creation of conditions in which people have real opportunities of judging the kind of lives they would like to lead'. The impartial spectator framework conceptualises this in terms of supporting the capability of individuals to become spectators on their own lives, by giving them access to alternative epistemic positions from which they can scrutinise their values, desires and aspirations.


Clark, David A. 2009. 'Adaptation, Poverty and Well‐ Being: Some Issues and Observations with Special Reference to the Capability Approach and Development Studies.' Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 10 (1): 21–42. doi:10.1080/14649880802675051.

———. 2012. 'Adaptation and Development - Issues, Evidence and Policy Relevance.' In Adaptation, Poverty and Development: The Dynamics of Subjective Well-Being, 1–31. Palgrave Macmillan.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press.

———. 2012. 'Values and Justice.' Journal of Economic Methodology 19 (2): 101–108.

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