How Many Concepts of Preference Are There? A Sequel.

In a recent post I asked how many concepts of preferences are in use and I answered: basically two. Some authors favour a behaviourist concept of preferences and some authors favour a mentalist concept. See the original post for an elaboration of this distinction.

I also asked whether the concept of preference used in philosophy differs from the concept used in the social sciences. Since the behaviourist and the mentalist concept are both employed by philosophers and social scientists, I denied a difference cutting along the disciplinary boundaries.

In hindsight, however, I neglected another distinction: Some authors assume that the concept of preferences implies a selfish motivation and some do not. If we ignore what it means for a motivation to be selfish, we might be tempted to subdivide each of the two concepts of preferences discussed in the earlier post further into a version with and a version without selfishness assumption. The following options seemingly result:

Behaviourist

Mentalist

Selfishness-Assumption

A

B

No Selfishness-Assumption

C

D

However, as soon as we take into account what it means for a motivation to be selfish, one option becomes dubious: A. If preferences are just re-descriptions of choice behaviour, then I don’t see why we should not allow re-descriptions. Assume Matilda works all her life to give money to needy anonymously. No one knows about it The easiest re-description seems to be that she prefers to help those in need. A standard response might be that she might actually do it for feeling happy about being a good person. This is a possible interpretation, but as a re-description it is actually more complex than just attributing non-selfish preferences. I can describe Matilda as preferring to spend her money on helping the needy, or I can describe Matilda as preferring to spend her money and what makes her happy and helping the needy. The first description is more straightforward.

I don’t want to get into the debates about the possibility of altruism, rather I want to point out that if one accepts a behaviourist account of preferences, the more plausible version of this account does not include a selfishness assumption. I doubt that anyone wants to actually endorse this version, so effectively we end up with three analyses of preferences. (And I find B fairly unhelpful as well, but this becomes more difficult to argue and I therefore leave it for another time.)