Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768ffcd9cc-jp8mt Total loading time: 0.258 Render date: 2022-12-05T21:33:32.707Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2011

University of


Adaptive preference formation is the unconscious altering of our preferences in light of the options we have available. Jon Elster has argued that this is bad because it undermines our autonomy. I agree, but think that Elster's explanation of why is lacking. So, I draw on a richer account of autonomy to give the following answer. Preferences formed through adaptation are characterized by covert influence (that is, explanations of which an agent herself is necessarily unaware), and covert influence undermines our autonomy because it undermines the extent to which an agent's preferences are ones that she has decided upon for herself. This answer fills the lacuna in Elster's argument. It also allows us to draw a principled distinction between adaptive preference formation and the closely related – but potentially autonomy-enhancing – phenomenon of character planning.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Elster, J., Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 109.

3 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 20. Others have made the same claim, e.g. Christman, John in ‘Autonomy and Personal History’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21 (1991), pp. 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Zimmerman, David in ‘Making Do: Troubling Stoic Tendencies in an Otherwise Compelling Theory of Autonomy’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 30 (2000), pp. 2554CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 27–30.

4 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 30.

5 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 15.

6 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 15–17.

7 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 21–2.

8 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 24.

9 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 111–24.

10 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 117–19.

11 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 118–19.

12 e.g. Rickard, M., ‘Sour-grapes, Rational Desires and Objective Consequentialism’, Philosophical Studies 80 (199), p. 279303CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 284.

13 Others besides Elster have tried to characterize the distinction. For the most part their distinctions tend to map onto one or other of the proposals for interpreting Elster that I discuss here, so I do not mention them separately. One exception is Luc Bovens, who says that the two types of phenomenon differ in respect of the semantic content of the preferences we end up with: adaptive preference formation involves adjusting one's preference for tokens without engaging in reasoning about the desirability of types, whereas ‘a typical case of character planning is the more involved project in which I can adjust my reasons for the ranking at hand’. See Bovens, L.Sour Grapes and Character Planning’, The Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992), pp. 5778CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 74. I do not consider Bovens's proposal here, for the same reasons as those given by Zimmerman, who complains that its focus on the content of preferences is misplaced, and leads Bovens to ignore some important variants of adaptive preference formation (see his ‘Sour Grapes, Self-abnegation and Character Building’, The Monist 86 (2003), pp. 220–41, at 228–35).

14 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 117.

15 Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 109–10.

16 For further discussion of Elster's distinction construed this way, see Sandven, Tore in ‘Intentional Action and Pure Causality: A Critical Discussion of Some Central Conceptual Distinctions in the Work of Jon Elster’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25 (1995), pp. 286317CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Autonomy, Adaptation, and Rationality – A Critical Discussion of Jon Elster's Concept of “Sour Grapes” Part I’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 29 (1999), pp. 3–31; and ‘Autonomy, Adaptation, and Rationality – A Critical Discussion of Jon Elster's Concept of “Sour Grapes” Part II’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 29 (1999), pp. 173–205.

17 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 117. See also Zimmerman ‘Sour Grapes’, p. 221.

18 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 117.

19 Friedman, M., ‘Autonomy and the Split-Level Self’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 24 (1986), pp. 1935CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Frankfurt, H., ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971), pp. 520CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Dworkin, G., The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge 1988), p. 20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Dworkin's book was published after Elster's, so the latter cannot have had in mind the precise formulation just quoted. However, Dworkin expressed a broadly similar idea earlier, e.g. in ‘Autonomy and Behaviour Control’, Hastings Centre Report 6 (1976), pp. 23–8; and ‘The Concept of Autonomy’, Science and Ethics, ed. R. Haller (Amsterdam, 1981), pp. 203–13.

22 Watson, G., ‘Free Agency’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), pp. 205–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thalberg, I., ‘Hierarchical Analyses of Unfree Action’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8 (1978), pp. 211–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Friedman, ‘Autonomy and the Split-Level Self’.

24 There are more such arguments in Friedman, ‘Autonomy and the Split-Level Self’, Thalberg ‘Hierarchical Analyses’, and Oshana, M., ‘How Much Should We Value Autonomy?’, Social Philosophy and Policy 20.2 (2003), pp. 99126CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Some defences can be found in Bratman, M., ‘Autonomy and Hierarchy’, Social Philosophy and Policy 20.2 (2003), pp. 156–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Raz, J., The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986), p. 370Google Scholar. Similar notions of autonomy can be found in Hurka, T., Perfectionism (Oxford, 1993), p. 148Google Scholar; and Wall, S.Liberalism, Perfectionism and Restraint (Cambridge, 1998), p. 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Colburn, B., Autonomy and Liberalism (New York, 2010), p. 19Google Scholar.

27 Dworkin, Theory and Practice of Autonomy, p. 18.

28 There is, of course, a further question whether the lack of covert influence is not merely necessary, but also sufficient for independence. Since an answer to that question is not needed for my purposes here, I do not seek to address it.

29 Crisp, R., ‘Persuasive Advertising, Autonomy, and the Creation of Desire’, Journal of Business Ethics 6 (1987), pp. 413–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Crisp, ‘Persuasive Advertising’, pp. 414–15.

31 Crisp, ‘Persuasive Advertising’, p. 415.

32 Crisp, ‘Persuasive Advertising’, p. 416. We can assume that the unconscious link is indeed risible, and hence won't stand up to scrutiny.

33 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 117.

34 Elster, Sour Grapes, p. 118. Interestingly, the means of character planning employed might be covert, even if the crucially significant decision to engage in the process is not. So, for example, if I fail at overt character planning, I might decide to put myself in the hands of someone who is a master at covert preference change, in the hope that his covert techniques might be successful. My thanks to an anonymous referee for the example.

35 For instructive discussion of this, see Zimmerman (‘Making Do’, pp. 35–7, and ‘Sour Grapes’, pp. 225–6), who worries that on Elster's view we can't distinguish character planning from the much more troubling phenomenon of self-abnegation, whereby an agent consciously seeks to eliminate desires that lead to unhappiness due to dramatically curtailed option-sets.

36 Of course, we might think there is still something wrong with her situation, from the point of view of autonomy or otherwise.

37 My thanks to Harry Adamson, Daniel Elstein, Lorna Finlayson, Hallvard Lillehammer and Serena Olsaretti for discussion on arguments in this article.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *