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. Continue reading “How Many Concepts of Preference Are There?”

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