Knowing Their Own Good: Preferences & Liberty in Global Ethics

In Thom Brooks (ed.), New Waves in Ethics. Palgrave MacMillan. pp. 210--230 (2011)
Citizens of liberal, affluent societies are regularly encouraged to support reforms meant to improve conditions for badly-off people in the developing world. Our economic and political support is solicited for causes such as: banning child labor, implementing universal primary education, closing down sweatshops and brothels, etc. But what if the relevant populations or individuals in the developing world do not support these particular reforms or aid programs? What if they would strongly prefer other reforms and programs, or would rank the various benefits that might be offered differently than seems reasonable to the Western, liberal supporters of these campaigns and organizations? What is the proper liberal response here? I argue that the proper liberal response is to support those programs and reforms that the global poor most value. The bulk of the paper is devoted to arguing against the popular liberal argument which states that we can safely disregard the preferences of the oppressed when they seem very unreasonable because these individuals suffer from “adaptive preferences.” This typically is taken to mean that their preferences are “not their own” in an important sense. I put forward various different proposals for why adaptive preferences can be safely dismissed, but ultimately argue that they are not persuasive. And if it is no longer legitimate to appeal to adaptive preferences as a basis for disregarding what oppressed people want, then I argue that to do so is straightforward paternalism, and so is unjustifiable in all but the most extreme cases. Finally, I argue for the following concrete recommendations: Given that resources are not infinite, we should (1) Support programs that give oppressed people increased access to information, such as access to technology, (2) support those reforms and aid programs that the oppressed themselves regard as most important, with special emphasis on those opportunities for education that they deem valuable, and (3) refrain from supporting coercive policies intended to thwart adaptive preferences.
Keywords adaptive preferences  global philanthropy  liberalism
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