How Many Concepts of Preference Are There?

It has been recently suggested to me that there might be a difference between the philosophical concept “preference” and social science concept “preference”. Since I am working in philosophy of the social science, getting such a distinction clear would be important for me. Given my area of work , I am especially in danger of mixing them up.

But I am not entirely convinced that there is such a distinction in the first place. In my notes I mainly distinguish a behaviourist-constructivist concept of preferences from mentalist-realist one. The distinction follows basically the 2016 paper by List and Dietrich, in which they argue for the mentalist-realist concept. You can very the exact formulations of these analyses, but the difference between the two concepts should be clear enough.

According to the behaviourist-constructivist approach preferences are nothing but logical constructions out of choice behavior. Preferences turn out to be mere re-descriptions of choice behaviour. If you always choose the orange over the apple, then this implies that you prefer oranges over apples. Many economists  apparently endorse such a concept of preferences, and so does Simon Blackburn in Ruling Passions. Therefore, the concept is used by social scientists and philosophers. One might argue that Blackburn only intends to reconstruct what social scientists are saying, but reading his text I get very much the impression that he buys into it. (On page 167 he notes that he would prefer to use the word “concern” rather than “preference”. He apparently endorses the concept, and only objects to the hedonist connotations associated with the word.)

On the mentalist-realist account preferences are real mental entities with causal efficacy. If you always choose the orange over the apple, this is evidence that you prefer oranges over apples, but it does not imply it. As soon as one endorses the mentalist position a myriad of questions arise within the ontology of mind. How are preferences realised? How can mental entities be efficacious at all? I am not going to say anything on these issues here and only note that List and Dietrich argued forcefully that the social sciences, and in particular economics, need such a mentalist concept of preferences for their explanatory purposes.

However, a way to vindicate the suggestion that philosophical and the social science use differ, is to argue that we should distinguish between “preference” in normative and “preference” in descriptive decision theory.  Since normative decision theory is arguably  philosophical while descriptive decision theory is closer to the social sciences, such a difference would support the original suggestion. Is there such a difference?

Things get even trickier at this point. Should we distinguish the normative from the descriptive concept? A lot depends here on one’s conception of rationality. Consider Robert Nozick’s claim in The Nature of Rationality: “Rationality is an evolutionary adaptation with a delimited purpose and function.” (Nozick 1993: 176) On this picture of rationality,  normative and descriptive decision theory probably share one concept of preference: the concept of preference capturing the mental entity, which has arisen through evolutionary history.

On another understanding of rationality, a more disembodied and abstract one, we might propose another concept of preference for normative decision theory. But my guess is that it would just amount a version of the behaviourist-constructivist concept of preferences. At least I am not aware of other available options. Here I hope for feedback, am I overlooking another option?

I end up with two main concepts of “preference”, although you might try to make slight variations out of them. Preferences can be constructed out of choice behaviour in different ways, and different mental entities might be identified with preferences. You might construct behaviourist preferences out of choice behaviour so that you never allow preference change or you might allow for preference change. You might identify mentalist preferences with desires or you might see them as more general mental dispositions. Many specifications are possible, but I do not see any of these differences cut between philosophy and the social sciences. Am I missing something?


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