Tolerances versus preferences

From Academic Kids

The tolerances versus preferences dilemma emerges in many problems in ethics, particularly in politics and economics. In essence, the dilemma is that the presentation of any problem to the public requires it to be framed in such a way that the public is either choosing a tolerance, that is, the acceptability of one of many painful choices, or a preference, that is, the desirability of one of several choices, one or all of which may seem to be desirable. So the choice of presentation is itself a very political problem:

There is very considerable evidence, especially in behavioral finance and political science and risk/regret theory, that people hedge losses in very different ways than they pursue gains. The question of how problems or menus of choices are presented may be far more influential than the question of what solutions or options are offered as the means to resolve them. Pollsters, politicians, advocates of referendum measures, are all well aware of this potential and often exploit their powers heavily to influence the outcome and 'frame the debate' so as to achieve their ends.

Ideally, this dilemma would be resolved by giving each side the time and money to debate the issue in public in a relatively fixed time horizon, e.g. an election with generous writeoffs for political donations. However, some choices are so difficult to make and even more difficult to change, e.g. choice of a voting system in a democracy, trust in a monopoly to manage a public utility, etc., and the negotiation of a trade bloc including many countries.

In these once-in-a-generation choices, the specific balance of power in effect when the decision is made tends to be critical, and the importance of knowing whether one is dealing more with tolerances (i.e. likely unrest, violence, war) or preferences (i.e. happiness, creativity, satisfaction). Some propose that the political 'left' and 'right' are defined by habitual tendencies to emphasize one or the other, and to be cautious and carefully assess tolerances, or to be reckless and advocate new adventures.

One such theory is that of Moral Politics, by George Lakoff. Another is that of the Guardian Ethic and Trader Ethic by Jane Jacobs. There is some more controversial but difficult-to-refute evidence from cognitive science and from primatology that human females may have better intuition for tolerances, and human males may be more inclined to thinking in terms of preferences. To some this is 'obvious', to others (e.g. those who manage to defy the sexual stereotypes) it's 'sexist' and imposed by culture, which devolves into nature versus nurture debate.

It may also be significant that languages may provide richer ways to express concerns about tolerances, or desires and preferences. A language that has few ways to say 'yes' and many to say 'no', e.g. Japanese, may incline native speakers to tolerance not preference thinking. (see Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis)

Regardless whether an innate cognitive bias, language's notation bias, or other more overt bias like economic interest or political gain motivates the presentation of any given choice, it seems that triggering the cautious, fearful, part of the brain has very different implications than triggering the greedy impulse to acquire more of what desires. Perhaps the most extreme statement of this view is that of Howard Bloom, whose book The Lucifer Principle argues that all forms of evil originate in the gain-seeking impulses of the human hypothalamus, which trigger one to seek gains rather than rationally assess risk or fearfully do nothing. This is not a widely accepted theory.

Nonetheless, the tolerances versus preferences issue underlies a good many debates regarding monopoly, including the United States v. Microsoft case, where Microsoft argues preferences of users drive the market, and the US Department of Justice takes the position that they are forced into a situation they tolerate, and will accept, but that requires some intervention to correct.

A more abstract debate where tolerances versus preferences is invoked is one between approval voting (based on tolerances) and preferential voting, although voters in either form of election may vote tactically if they consider themselves to be facing an unusally risky or rewarding choice of candidates.

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