by Madison Mamczur

Adaptive preference formation describes individuals’ preferences that are inconsistent with basic flourishing, and which are formed under conditions non-conducive to basic flourishing. [1] There are divergent views in the literature on adaptive preference formation as to whether adaptive preferences count as autonomy deficits. One philosopher, Serene Khader, notably argues that adaptive preferences do not count as autonomy deficits. She identifies a causal relationship between adaptive preferences and an individual’s circumstances of oppression, which is critical to her attempt to account for an individual having autonomy in an oppressive scenario. In response to this position, I want to ask: is it disrespectful to suggest that there is a causal link between the adaptive preferences of others and the circumstances of their oppression? 

Adaptive preferences occur when individuals are confronted with a forced choice and subsequently exercise their free will, according to their desires and given a narrow preference set. I do not think that adaptive preferences are autonomy deficits, or that it is disrespectful to suggest that adaptive preferences are causally related to the circumstances of an individual’s oppression. Accordingly, in this essay I illustrate that all preferences can be causally linked to circumstances, including those in non-oppressive contexts. However, the question of how autonomy might factor into emancipation from oppressive conditions remains. I argue here that by acknowledging the inherent creativity of individuals, autonomy can be instrumentalised in order to manipulate or to invent a renewed preference under oppressive conditions. 

I would first like to dwell for a moment on the nature of preferences and their formation. I argue, in line with Khader’s view, that adaptive preferences are a response to an imposed choice, and that any subsequent preference is therefore not reflective of the individual’s deepest or truest desires. Preferences by nature form part of a set. In circumstances of oppression, I believe that the narrowness and givenness of the set leads oppressed individuals to hold a deterministic view of the outcome of their choice. In discussing adaptive preference formation, Martha Nussbaum provides the example of Vasanti, who remained for many years in an abusive marriage.[2] The choice to leave the abusive marriage could have been perceived as a potentially worse scenario, resulting in homelessness and destitution. Heteronormative, patriarchal structures inform both the abuse of Vasanti by her husband, and the lack of (safe) alternatives available to her outside of the marriage. For example, due to the absence of public consciousness and support around domestic violence, there exists a lack of women’s shelters and services. This scenario reveals the somewhat pre-determined reality of women’s subordination experienced by Vasanti, and then retroactively defined by her as a “deliberate life-planning process”.[3] Therefore, despite an implied determinism here, Vasanti’s adaptive preference to remain in her abusive marriage remains at once an autonomous choice and an unfree choice. 

Khader asserts that, when all available options are non-conducive to basic flourishing, individuals are forced to rationally and therefore autonomously form an adaptive preference for the best option among the narrow preference set. This leads to the claim that under different, less oppressive conditions, individuals with adaptive preferences would likely form a different preference.[4] This supports the causality between circumstances and preferences, but it also brings forth a question about the association between autonomous will and freedom. Does a broader preference set, and more available preferences, necessarily transform the status of the imposed choice to a simply conscious choice instead? Consider the example of a young man in Australia who wanted to become a jockey, but by 17 grew to be 6’2”. His physical characteristics now prevent him from pursuing his deep desire to be a jockey. Consequently, he forms an adaptive preference towards a different, available career goal. Whilst this is not in a circumstance of deprivation or of overt oppression, it similarly elicits adaptive preference logic. He forms an adaptive preference which is causally linked to the circumstance that has reduced his available options; namely, his growth spurt. This example illustrates how, even given a broad preference set, the deep desires of an individual can remain unsatisfied. 

Beyond contexts of oppression, I argue that any conscious choice is an imposed one. This is on the basis that there is no preference distinct from desire that is of an innate or ‘natural’ causality. In contexts that are not overtly oppressive, preferences and the imposed preference set are arguably causally shaped, and similarly deformed, by physical, social, cultural and historical influences. Attempts to broaden the preference set, as Khader suggests, could produce preferences more in line with individuals’ deep desires, but may also risk creating an added distortion. If the judging party determines that action is necessary, won’t the preferences that the judging party reveals and facilitates for the individual also mirror what they value highly? Acknowledging this evaluation of preferences has important political implications. Upholding the autonomy of individuals with adaptive preferences, so as not to impose one’s own preferences, cautions against political interventions in preference formation which might be seen as coercive or paternalistic. I argue that this caution is important in retaining respect for the agency of individuals. However, the risk here might be that autonomy could serve as a simulating proxy for freedom, and this could indirectly curtail efforts towards liberation from overtly oppressive circumstances. 

Before I address the limitations of autonomy in this scenario, I would like to examine a final challenge to accounts of adaptive preferences which value autonomy. If the broad ideology of a society is seen as influencing the preference set, could it not also be seen to influence the adaptive preferences formed by the individual? If individuals genuinely subscribe to the ideology that oppresses them, or they internalise normative influences, one could argue that the individual not only autonomously forms an adaptive preference, but that they genuinely desire their adaptive preference. Nussbaum speculates that women like Vasanti lack a vision of themselves “as persons with rights that could be violated.”[5] Khader draws out the claims associated with this view, arguing that under Nussbaum’s way of thinking “one might venture that the woman who chooses genital cutting does not think she deserves sexual pleasure or that the woman who mal-nourishes herself does not think she deserves to eat.”[6] Khader argues that “this explanation is just too simple to be plausible”; that “Self-esteem is an excessively global concept. It is implausible that most persons with [adaptive preferences] think that they are unworthy human beings who cannot make claims on others.”[7] Like Khader, I also believe that Nussbaum’s claim that women with adaptive preferences may not consider themselves persons with rights that could be violated is implausible, or largely not the case.

However, I also acknowledge that Nussbaum raises an important issue, which is the insidious nature of ideology. There are examples of women who enthusiastically engage with an ideology that oppresses them. For example, a devout Catholic woman may choose to remain in a violent marriage because of her religious belief that divorce is a sin. Patriarchal structures are time-honoured, inscribed in institutions like the Catholic Church, and women have long borne the burden of this. The adoption of oppressive ideology by the oppressed party is also evident outside religious contexts. It could be speculated that Vasanti’s adaptive preference to remain in her abusive marriage for many years was also the preference of her abusive husband, and perhaps her community and broader society. This illustrates a very perverted feature of ideology (especially patriarchy), which is that it functions in a way that aligns an individual’s autonomous will with the will of their oppressor. Formalised ideological structures, such as patriarchy, arguably condition preference sets in such a way that they lead both the oppressor and the oppressed to autonomously arrive at a mutually preferred outcome. On this basis, women’s own autonomy could be seen to enforce their own oppression via the imposed, forced, free choice. 

This leads us to consider the role of autonomy in circumstances of oppression, and whether autonomy alone can provide a means for people to liberate themselves. I believe that Khader makes a solid case for women’s autonomy within systems of oppression, and also acknowledges that the choice is imposed. On this basis, I have argued that women may form an adaptive preference that is autonomous at the same time as they remain embedded in the matrix of misogyny. While I have also argued that there are some limitations on autonomy in adaptive preference contexts which involve narrow preference sets, I still regard autonomy to be an important notion for oppressed individuals. Autonomy, as I understand it, is an instrument that can be exercised more broadly. As I briefly mentioned in the examples explored by Nussbaum and Khader, the question of autonomy is most pertinent when it is exercised in a ‘this or that’ equation. The focus here is the autonomous choice that is made in the face of a restricted preference set, which could be viewed as a robotic application of autonomy. What is left out of these accounts, I argue, is the creativity of the individual with regard to adaptive preferences; that is, how they might creatively envision a path to the fulfilment of their deep desires. In circumstances of oppression, creativity must be paired with autonomy in order to imagine additional preferences that would more closely resemble one’s deep desires. Suppose an oppressed individual found a way to creatively manipulate their circumstances of oppression to reveal a new preference. In this instance, the individual’s autonomy would be seen as a driver of the reconfigured preferences, and a functional advocate for their deep desires. I maintain the distinction between autonomy and liberation but have attempted to draw a second causal relationship between the two using the adjunct of creativity.

It is important to note that forming an adaptive preference does not, in my opinion, necessarily lead to an abandonment of one’s deep desires. Recently, we have witnessed collective resistance to racism, on both an institutional and a personal level. Accounts from within the London Metropolitan Police in particular have revealed the insidious and entrenched nature of the racism endemic to the organisation. Former assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police department, Patricia Gallen, recently came forth to say that she “experienced both overt and subtle racism – internal more often than external and from all ranks.”[8] It is clear that many individuals choose not to speak up in these situations. This is potentially because it is notoriously difficult in such hierarchical organisations to press for change, not to mention the difficulty of conveying the subtlety of some racist scenarios and how far they reach. It could be suggested that it is an adaptive preference for individuals to not speak up about their experiences of racism in these environments, because of a fear of losing their wage and employment, or of jeopardising advancement prospects. I do not believe it is a step too far to say that, for some of these individuals, they formed an adaptive preference to stay quiet so as to rise through the ranks, perhaps maintaining an aspiration and deep desire to be in a position to transform the organisation in the future. In light of the collective social discourse, individuals are speaking out about the times they formed these autonomous adaptive preferences, but now with a greater goal in sight; namely, that their deep desire to dismantle institutional racism might be realised.

In this paper, I have identified that adaptive preference logic can be applied more broadly than only to circumstances of overt oppression. It also applies to those circumstances which also display a causal link to an individual’s circumstances. This suggests that it is not necessarily disrespectful to identify the causal link between preferences of oppressed people and the circumstances of their oppression, because the causal link is not a symptom of the oppression itself. The symptom of oppression is the narrow preference set. I would be heavily critical of the role of a judging party which only attempts to catalogue adaptive preferences, and which does not flip the lens to themselves and observe how they might be implicated in the oppression of the other. I believe the line to disrespect would be crossed if the judging party identifies that they are complicit in the oppression of the other in some capacity, and does not seek to provide a remedy. The causality between circumstances and preferences is critical to Khader’s view that autonomy is retained within adaptive preference formation. As previously emphasised, I argue that acknowledging this link is not disrespectful, but that maintaining the integrity of rational will encourages respect for individuals with adaptive preferences. To this end, I have proposed that accounting for the notion of creativity in adaptive preference theory challenges the fixedness of the given preference set, and I have thus demonstrated that by harnessing both individual autonomy and creativity, this instrumentalised autonomy may present a tool for oppressed individuals to uncover preferences that better reflect their deep desires. 

Madison Mamczur is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts with an extended major in Philosophy, and has an interest in Western philosophy in particular. 


[1] Serene J. Khader, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011),  75.

[2] Martha Nussbaum, “Symposium on Amartya Sen’s Philosophy: 5 Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Options,” Economics and Philosophy 17 (2001): 68.

[3] Khader, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, 85.

[4] Khader, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, 87-89.

[5] Nussbaum, “Symposium on Amartya Sen’s Philosophy,” 69.

[6] Khader, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, 90.

[7] Khader, Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, 90.[8]        Vikram Dodd and Mattha Busby, “Former top black Met police officers say racism blighted their careers,” The Guardian, 15 June 2020, online:


Dodd, Vikram and Mattha Busby. “Former top black Met police officers say racism blighted their careers.” The Guardian. 15 June 2020. Online:

Khader, Serene J. “Adaptive Preferences and Choice: Are Adaptive Preferences Autonomy Deficits?” In Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Empowerment, edited by Ann E. Cudd, 74-106. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Nussbaum, Martha. “Symposium on Amartya Sen’s Philosophy: 5 Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Options.” Economics and Philosophy 17 (2001): 69.

Featured image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.