Which Preferences Count? Adaptation, Capabilities and Disability

Begon, Jessica (2014). 'Which Preferences Count? Adaptation, Capabilities and Disability' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

It is a longstanding problem for theorists of justice that many victims of injustice seem to perpetuate their own oppression: for example, those who choose to stay with an abusive partner, or sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome (wherein a kidnap victim feels trust or affection for their captor). In conditions of great hardship or deprivation individuals may cope with their circumstances by claiming to prefer their situation to any alternative. Yet such preferences should surely not legitimate such practices, or be taken as reliable evidence about these individuals' well-being: 'women's compliance with sexist norms [for example] does not legitimate those norms' (Khader 2012: 302).


Unreliable adaptive preferences are particularly problematic for theories of distributive justice, where preferences can play a role in determining the goods or opportunities an individual is entitled to. Yet the fact that a kidnap victim does not desire release should not mean they are not entitled to freedom, nor should a woman's satisfaction with fewer material resources mean they are entitled to less. This problem is starkest for (preference-satisfaction) welfarists for whom the unreliability of individuals' stated preferences translates directly into an unreliable theory of distributive justice. Indeed, the idea of adaptive preferences was initially developed as a critique of welfarist theories that 'take…account of wants only as they are given' (Elster 1982: 237), and so assume that that those who claim to be satisfied are, indeed, satisfied, and so entitled to nothing further.


One possible response to this problem is to give individuals' stated preferences a less direct role in determining what constitutes a just distribution, and to ignore preferences such as those described above as unreliable 'adaptive preferences'. Capability theorists have taken this approach, arguing that individuals should be entitled to certain capabilities regardless of their apparent satisfaction without them. Rather than an individual's preference determining their specific entitlement, we should come to an overlapping consensus on the necessary features of a flourishing life. All individuals are then entitled to the opportunity to perform those functionings agreed to be central in this way (the central capabilities). Yet only those whose preferences and beliefs regarding a good human life are considered reliable should be included in this consensus, and adaptive preferences are amongst those that, it is assumed, can be legitimately ignored.[1] Thus, if a person with Stockholm Syndrome, for example, insists freedom from captivity is unimportant, this will not be taken as evidence that this is inessential to flourishing, and need not be provided (to them, or others) as a matter of justice. The capability for freedom will remain amongst those considered central.


In this way, capability theorists can take account of preferences yet, unlike welfarists, can identify and ignore adaptive preferences, and so avoid ingrained mistreatment and oppression being formalised into the dictates of a theory of justice. However, whilst this response is uncontroversial in such paradigmatic cases, it has been objected that undermining the reliability of individuals' apparently strongly held preferences can promote the further exclusion of already marginalised groups. Characterising the preferences of oppressed and vulnerable minorities as unreliable, and those who hold them as 'defective agents' (Khader 2012), may weaken the credentials of the capability approach as committed to social justice and inclusion.


For example, it has been suggested that, although the approach prides itself on being robustly feminist, it unjustifiably classes the preferences of third-world women as adaptive, undermining their autonomy and status as agents (Khader 2012; Okin 2003). Similarly, despite Nussbaum's (2006) claims that the approach is better placed to accommodate disabled individuals than alternative theories, Elizabeth Barnes (2009a; 2009b) has argued that the capability approach will exclude the preferences of many (physically) disabled people as adaptive.


I will argue that such criticisms trade on an ambiguity between two uses of the term 'adaptive preferences' in the literature on distributive justice. To say that a preference is adaptive may mean that the preference is irrational, and the person who holds it is a 'defective agent', and a poor guide to their own best interests. I call these well-being adaptive preferences. It is for judging individuals' preferences adaptive in this sense that the capability approach is criticised. However, I will argue that this is not what capability theorists – and other theorists of distributive justice – usually mean when they judge a preference to be adaptive.


To say that a preference is adaptive, then, may simply mean that it is an unreliable guide to our redistributive entitlements. This need say nothing about the rationality or agency of the individual holding the preference, and so does not require that we make insulting or paternalist judgements. I call these justice adaptive preferences.


This distinction has not been explicitly acknowledged, perhaps because from a welfarist perspective the distinction collapses: if preferences regarding our interests directly determine our entitlement, then if individuals' are a reliable guide to their interests, the resulting theory of justice will be reliable too (and vice versa). Yet, for other theories of distributive justice, this distinction is salient. I will consider this distinction in regards to the specific case of disability, and argue, first, that capability theorists will not ordinarily exclude disabled individuals' preferences, and second, that preferences can be so excluded (from determining our distributive entitlements) without generating the insulting conclusion that the individuals in question are unreliable or irrational agents.


There are many senses in which our preferences may be adaptive – indeed, there is a sense in which all our preferences are adaptive – and we must be careful to specify what we mean when we make such ascriptions. If we do so, it is possible to consider adaptive, and ignore, some preferences of some individuals in the disabled community, without insulting or undermining their rationality or culture. Thus, the capability approach can respond to the accusations that it excludes the voices of oppressed minorities. 

[1] I am, here, following Nussbaum's account of how a list of central capabilities can be identified (for example, Nussbaum 2000; 2011). 

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