changing preferences

2 januari 2010 | In parenting Self-indulgence | 4 Comments

A number of things are said to happen when you become a parent. One of these is the curious event of changing preferences: an unprecedented, radical and rather immediate switch in interests and priorities which, so it is said, is impossible to imagine beforehand. The last bit is usually added by people who are already parents, and with more than a detectable  hint of smugness. This smugness is earned by not sleeping very well.

(Topic for an another blogpost: the inflated case for first-hand  experience. When people say things like ”you had to be there” I often react ”Well, then you must not be telling it very well”. Not to their face, obviously. Also: don’t say ”this town is too small for me”, it has the metaphorical implication that you are in some important sense bigger than the people for which the town in question is not too small. Rather, say ”I’m not capable of flourishing in this environment”. Or, come to think of it: don’t say that either. You might get a short, sharp visit from the smack-fairy).

What’s interesting about changing preferences is that they muck rational decisions up a bit. If a travesty of the classical model of a rational person is correct, and a rational person is one who acts in accordance with his/her preferences: How can we make the decision that involves changing those preferences rationally? What preference is satisfied by my creating new preferences? It might be a meta-preference: for having preferences that are more easily satisfied, for instance. If you have a preference for chinese food, and there is no good place for chinese food where you live, and you wont move (what? I question your devotion to chinese food, sir) there is a case for you giving up on this preference. At least if you take the preference to be contingent on its own existence, i.e. if there are no preference independent reasons to care for chinese food.

If the change in preferences brought about by having a kid is radical and unforeseeable, it becomes even more difficult to make the decision rationally: you don’t know whether the preferences created will be easy to satisfy, nor what they will involve when it comes to changing your preferences for things that you know genuinely care about. In fact, you might even loose the preference (meta- or not) that made it seem like a rational decision in the first place.

Comparable decisions are to start caring about a sports-team or to use drugs. In particular the latter is comparable, since it has a tendency to consume other preferences. (The drug case is different insofar that it is very rarely a good idea).

What adds complexity to the child-case is that not only do you change your own preferences: you create a new subject of preferences and those are in a very real sense unpredictable in the long run.

Let the record show that so far, there has been a clear net gain in preference satisfaction, notably among the unforeseen ones (such as rekindling my interest for preference changes), and a non-significant loss of previous, important ones.


  1. David: Very interesting. This reminds of two brief discussions of mine (in Swedish):
    i) Is it desirable to start developing a preference for coffee? I hesitate.
    ii) Is it desirable to create a child (with new preferences)? This is a different question from asking how a child affects the parents’ preferences: it puts the focus on whether it is morally acceptable to bring a being with his or her own preferences into existence.

    Kommentar by Niclas — 02 januari 2010 #

  2. Thanks! Preference change is interesting, mainly because it bring out our intuitions, and sometimes confusions, about the precise nature of the relationship between preferences and our good. I guess suicide also qualifies as an interesting case in point, related to your discussion on the value/disvalue of preference satisfaction and frustration for existing and non-existing agents.
    I wrote my bachelor thesis on preferentialism, in fact, and it was while working on it that I started to develop a view on the concrete relation between pro-attitudes and valuable states, and also an attitudinal understanding of pleasure.

    Kommentar by david — 02 januari 2010 #

  3. I just saw this post–someone pointed me towards is because, as it happens, I wrote a paper just on this topic. One main difference is that I (unlike you) think experience should play a huge role.

    Kommentar by L. A. Paul — 19 november 2013 #

  4. Thanks for commenting! I recently found you’re paper, by Antti Kauppinens blogpost reply. But I don’t see the disagreement: I too believe that experience is what matters (I’m a hedonist after all). I just say it mucks up rational choice based on previous preferences (given an object-reading of the value of preference satisfaction). And stand by the claim that it’s the quality of the experiences of everyone concerned, even the hypothetical baby, that happen to stem to a large extent from the quality of the relations, that matters.

    Kommentar by david — 25 november 2013 #

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