Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Over the past quarter century, the concept of "adaptive preferences" has played an important role in debates in law, economics, and political philosophy. As Professor Jon Elster has described this psychological phenomenon, "people tend to adjust their aspirations to their possibilities." A number of prominent scholars have argued that the existence of adaptive preferences "raises serious problems for neoclassical economics and for unambivalent enthusiasm for freedom of choice." Because our current preferences are constrained by the opportunities available to us, proponents of adaptive preference theory contend, those preferences may not be the best guide to what is in our interests; we may be unduly content with unfair limitations on our opportunities. In a typical passage, Amartya Sen describes the phenomenon this way:

The underdog learns to bear the burden so well that he or she overlooks the burden itself. Discontent is replaced by acceptance, hopeless rebellion by conformist quiet, and-most relevantly in the present context-suffering and anger by cheerful endurance. As people learn to adjust to the existing horrors by the sheer necessity of uneventful survival, the horrors look less terrible in the metric of utilities. Thus, scholars have typically invoked the adaptive preferences phenomenon as an argument that some preferences are not a proper measure of justice and ought not guide policy. Although some have recognized in the abstract that nothing in the theory of adaptive preferences requires preferences to be disregarded uniformly, the concept has nearly always been deployed as part of an argument for disregarding revealed, expressed, or felt preferences.

Critics of adaptive preference theory have argued that the theory lacks "both conceptual coherence and empirical grounding" and that it is "undemocratic" because the true "argument for satisfying preferences is that they are the individual's, whatever their origin." We take a different tack. We agree with the theory's proponents that adaptive preferences exist and that they raise significant normative questions about the unreflective use of preferences as a measure of justice or a basis for policy. But-and this is a point to which proponents of adaptive preference theory have given too little attention-identifying adaptive preferences is only the beginning of the normative inquiry. Although the writings of the theory's proponents sometimes suggest the contrary, we argue that adaptive preferences ought not be automatically rejected (though neither should they be accepted uncritically) as a measure of justice or a basis for policy. Rather, the realization that particular preferences are adaptive should induce a more searching normative inquiry into whether those preferences ought to drive policy in particular contexts.