Matthew Adler on extended preferences and interpersonal comparisons
June 3, 2014
Mark D. White
Matt Adler (Duke University) has a fascinating article in the latest issue of Economics and Philosophy (30/2, July 2014) titled "Extended Preferences and Interpersonal Comparisons: A New Account":
This paper builds upon, but substantially revises, John Harsanyi's concept of ‘extended preferences’. An individual ‘history’ is a possible life that some person (a subject) might lead. Harsanyi supposes that a given spectator, formulating her ethical preferences, can rank histories by empathetic projection: putting herself ‘in the shoes’ of various subjects. Harsanyi then suggests that interpersonal comparisons be derived from the utility function representing spectators’ (supposedly common) ranking of history lotteries. Unfortunately, Harsanyi's proposal has various flaws, including some that have hitherto escaped scholarly attention. In particular, it ignores the limits of personal identity. If the subject has welfare-relevant attributes that the spectator cannot acquire without changing who she is, full empathetic identification of the latter with the former becomes impossible. This paper proposes instead to use sympathy as the attitude on a spectator's part that allows us to make sense of her extended preferences. Sympathy – an attitude of care and concern – is a psychological state quite different from empathy. We should also allow for hetereogeneity in spectators’ extended preferences. Interpersonal comparisons emerge from a plurality of sympathetic spectators, not (as per Harsanyi) from a common empathetic ranking.
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