Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Peace Love Justice and No Mercy

So I guess there has been some discussion about Alvin Roth and rationality and preference-satisfaction. I don't want to get too far into the weeds, but I wanted to chime in on behalf of preference-satisfaction.

A quick qualification: I have no qualifications. I am quite sure philosophers have thought pretty hard about this stuff, but I have not. I haven't even read the article I linked to.

I'm also not sure that people would actually defend what I (mistakenly?) take them to be saying - that preference satisfaction is neither here nor there, as it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good policy outcome (the particular policy under discussion was the process by which medical students are "matched" to residency programs, a very complex problem).

But so this strikes me as deeply silly. I'm not going to try to defend preference-satisfaction on a philosophical level. Instead, I want to rebut some particular examples that have been put forward and make the case that it's silly to treat preference-satisfaction as a pointless goal.

What actually motivated me to write this post is that I think it's unfair to attack preference-satisfaction with examples in which preferences are not satisfied. So for instance, imagine that I prefer gasoline to whatever else I would spend $20 on, and the gas station proprietor prefers $20 to his gasoline. So if there's a free market in gasoline, maybe I buy the gas and burn it in my car. But uh oh, the emissions cause global warming and people suffer as a result! Say a guy loses his house. That seems like a bad outcome, the house probably meant a lot to him whereas I blew the gas cruising on the highway.

Is this a robust indictment of preference-satisfaction? Well, no - the guy didn't prefer to lose his house! What happened was that we satisfied some preferences but not others. There were unwilling participants whose preferences weren't given any weight.

The examples that people keep bringing up are of the destroy-the-house variety, so I don't really think they support the proposition for which they are cited. This is not to say that one couldn't adduce some good examples - addicts, people with shifting preferences, people with second-order preferences that don't align well with their first-order preferences, etc. I'm not ambitious enough to deal with these cases, but I think they can be regarded as limited. I, for one, am not moved by the possibility that medical students might have such poorly-defined preferences that they rank residency programs in a flawed way, much less one that could be rooted out and corrected with a sufficiently preference-ignoring policy.

And but so, where does that leave us? To me, preference-satisfaction seems like kind of thing that works well in practice but not in theory. If I give an example of a policy that satisfies some preferences and does not frustrate others, then in general that is a pretty good reason to adopt the policy. Maybe not if it involves addictive substances. But I mean, say I propose to plant a tree in my yard. I prefer my yard to have a tree in it. No one minds. We all understand that I should be allowed to plant the tree. Or at least, I think we do. I haven't heard an argument from the preference-frustration camp that would make me want to bar the planting of trees in these circumstances.