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Autonomy and Adaptive Preferences

  • BEN COLBURN (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 15 February 2011

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.

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John Christman in ‘Autonomy and Personal History’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21 (1991), pp. 124

David Zimmerman in ‘Making Do: Troubling Stoic Tendencies in an Otherwise Compelling Theory of Autonomy’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 30 (2000), pp. 2554

M. Rickard , ‘Sour-grapes, Rational Desires and Objective Consequentialism’, Philosophical Studies 80 (199), p. 279303

L. Bovens Sour Grapes and Character Planning’, The Journal of Philosophy 89 (1992), pp. 5778

Tore Sandven 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. 286317

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

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

G. Watson , ‘Free Agency’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), pp. 205–20

I. Thalberg , ‘Hierarchical Analyses of Unfree Action’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8 (1978), pp. 211–26

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

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