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 does not say much 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) Nevinomics 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? How can this be achieved?
- Should the state through public policy – in its attempt to maximize Flourishing – actively try to change (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, will have a significant impact in coming articles on how we ultimately define what it means for an individual to Flourish.1)I do not want to say much here about Question 2 – it requires a book because with more subtle differences in preferences, value are not clear cut. But, overall, Nevinomics believes 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 even illegal), 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.
Ok, Question 3. Self-conscious agency – in Nevinomics’ view – has to be part of Flourishing: “One must be prepared to be enlightened about oneself… and to act upon this enlightenment.”2)From my doctoral thesis. So I must be reflective about my preferences. Put another way, Nevinomics does not 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 is 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 better writer) and some I should probably not act on (like trying bungee jumping).
I examined this issue in my original PhD thesis (25 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…3)From the conclusion to my doctoral thesis.
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 what is new is to link it with Flourishing, a particular form of well-being and happiness. And if Flourishing is our public policy objective – as it is for Nevinomics – then self-conscious agency becomes a matter of public policy. That is, we want our society – its norms, traditions, and education system – to produce adults who possess this feature.
This has profound implications for the education system. We all understand that, in some sense, public education (in the US sense, not the UK 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 I have here answered the first part of Question 3 (Does Flourishing require that an individual have [some] control over how preferences change over time?), I leave to another article the answer to the second part of Question 3: How can this be achieved?
It is when we look to Question 4 that we see some classical tension emerges 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. Nevinomics believes:
- 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 maximize 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 (LBGT issues and wearing a Niqab in public are two examples that come to mind). Some people have preferences about other people’s preferences, even when these do not appear to cause overt harm.
Nevinomics is going to take quite a strong stance on this 3rd issue. At the core of Flourishing is that it is available to all, and each of us maximizes Flourishing by finding our own path. And as long as my path is not overtly harming you, those preferences should be viewed as legitimate, particularly if there is a high degree of self-conscious agency in society. And it is not legitimate to have preferences about other people’s preferences if those others’ 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 are 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, I will expand upon in future articles.
Photo Credit: El Neill
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||I do not want to say much here about Question 2 – it requires a book because with more subtle differences in preferences, value are not clear cut. But, overall, Nevinomics believes 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 even illegal), 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 my doctoral thesis.|
|3.||↑||From the conclusion to my doctoral thesis.|