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Durham University

School of Government & International Affairs

Staff Profile

Publication details for Dr Jessica Begon

Begon, Jessica (2015). What are Adaptive Preferences? Exclusion and Disability in the Capability Approach. Journal of Applied Philosophy 32(3): 241-257.

Author(s) from Durham


It is a longstanding problem for theorists of justice that many victims of injustice seem to prefer mistreatment, and perpetuate their own oppression. One possible response is to simply ignore such preferences as unreliable ‘adaptive preferences’. Capability theorists have taken this approach, arguing that individuals should be entitled to certain capabilities regardless of their satisfaction without them. Although this initially seems plausible, worries have been raised that undermining the reliability of individuals' strongly‐held preferences impugns their rationality, and further excludes already marginalised groups. I argue that such criticisms trade on an ambiguity between two uses of the term ‘adaptive preference’. An adaptive preference is often assumed to be irrational, and an unreliable guide to its possessor's best interests. However, I suggest a preference may also be adaptive in the sense that it is an unreliable guide to our distributive entitlements, and that this does not require an assessment of individuals' rationality. I consider this distinction in relation to disability, arguing that this clarification allows us to justifiably ignore some disabled individuals' preferences, in the context of theorising about distributive justice, without disrespecting or undermining their rationality or culture.