The importance of what people care about

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 11 (4):415-447 (2012)
Abstract
Happiness studies have rekindled interest in the measurement of subjective well-being, and often claim to track faithfully ‘what people care about’ in their lives. It is argued in this article that seeking to respect individuals’ preferences in the context of making intrapersonal and interpersonal comparisons for social evaluation has important and somewhat surprising implications, which shed light, in particular, on subjective measures and their objective alternatives, such as Sen’s capability approach. Four points are made. First, raw subjective well-being scores are problematic because they involve different calibration norms for different individuals or for the same individuals at different times. Money-metric and similar measures appear more attractive in this perspective. Second, if individuals genuinely care about their relative positions, incorporating such relative aspects in the evaluation of individual situations does not necessarily lead to rewarding the selfish and malevolent. Third, in the context of risk, relying on ex ante preferences may clash with a concern for ex post preferences, which are better informed. Fourth, focusing on opportunities or capabilities may fail to respect preferences
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