On Adaptive Preference


Why do people want what they want? That question proves helpful in our deliberating about what political actions we ought to take. With this essay I aim to respond to Nussbaum’s ideas about adaptive preference. I have two main points I want to get across. The first: adaptive preference can lead to despair if taken to an extreme, yet it can lead to grace if balanced with agency. My second point: adaptive preference and René Girard’s mimetic desire illuminate each other. My essay will be structured in the following way. First I will explain the two ideas Nussbaum presents that I will wrestle with. Then I will critique those ideas, offering my points in response. Then I will discuss societal implications of these ideas, then personal implications, and finally I will conclude the essay.


Adaptive preference reveals the way people have been socialized into some preferences as opposed to having chosen them. An example of this is the situation where someone wants to enter into a gendered, normative, submissive relationship with their spouse, we recognize that preference may have been a development of that person’s culture and environment, and as a result, that preference may not really be what is best for them, and instead this seems to be a preference that the woman and man developed as a result of living in their particular settings. Little choice exists in my preference when that is the only preference my environment provided me with.

            Here is the second idea: Adaptive preference states that the development of preference for particular things is affected by limited options. This is a very similar concept to what we just presented. We can again take up the example of the woman growing up in a conservative Christian town. Here we will point out that in her upbringing there were no other options presented to her. So she chose what she did because it was her only option.

            Considering adaptive preference in a more extreme situation will reveal more to us. We will see that the lack of options can cultivate toleration for what should be intolerable. Consider a wife in India with no freedom to associate or affiliate with others in such a way which could develop friendships. This restriction may be imposed on her by her husband. This is the lot of many women in India. Nussbaum provided this example. Here, the woman we are examining may come to think that this little choice or freedom that she has is simply woman’s way of life. Many women do come to accept these damaging situations as women’s lot. If we remember the capabilities approach, we will have a set of propositions which we can use to say that this should not be the lot of any being we want to call human. If she’s human, she ought to be able to develop affiliations with other people.


An extreme affirmation of adaptive preference can lead to despair. If someone affirms that all of their preferences have come out of the situations they have been in, then they can think “Wow, I am no more than pre-determined” and then they can lose the will to participate in their life. They can lose the will to take an active part in the life they are living and the person they are becoming. I am assuming that taking an active part in one’s life is good. This idea about participating in one’s own development comes from James Taylor. When consigning themselves to an extreme understanding of adaptive preference, that belief will have a toxic affect on the person because it will keep them from participating in their own development.

            However, if a balance is found, where one recognizes the ways that their preferences have been shaped, yet they also realize that they did have some choice in their development and in their future, then they can have not only hope, but also grace. Recognizing that someone else’s preference may come out of a situation which was very limited may help birth in us compassion towards them. I want to go further and say it will give us compassion. The woman who has not known clean water can hardly be blamed for her satisfaction with dirty water, but when she learns of and experiences cleanliness, she will begin to want that. This is another example from Nussbaum’s book which in imaging, perhaps we can start to feel some of the compassion and grace towards those women for their seemingly low standards.

            Girard’s concept of mimesis gives a similar account to the development of desire as adaptive preference. Mimesis understands the development of desire to come from exposure to others’ desires. Mimesis is a process that is like osmosis from others. Individuals need others in order to develop their preferences. Adaptive preference does not require individuals to have exposure to another’s particular desire in order for them to develop a preference. Adaptive preference springs up when there is a situation where someone has had only particular exposures, and also they have had only limited options. They have only been introduced to so much and they have only encountered a limited range of ideas, relationships, and freedoms.

Societal Implications

Let’s consider the Trump phenomenon using the concept of adaptive preference, which results in people ‘s preferences not being the result of free choices, but instead the result of environmental effect. Trump has become peoples’ choice because that is the way their environment has shaped them. When peoples’ environment is all pointing to Trump, they are likely going to turn towards him. Dr. George suggested the following: consider a person without a strong identity and who has a difficult, disappointed life, then they start to hear this call from Trump to a strong sense of national identity. This will excite the person and stir them to be roused and interested in what is being presented to them. Then as an effect, they start to support Trump because of the nationalistic messages that came into their environment.

            This is not to say that there is nothing that these people can do but support Trump. Earlier we discussed the necessity of maintaining an element of freedom in our conception of adaptive preference. A deterministic adaptive preference leads to despair. A person could still reject the candidate placed before them. However, this might lead to some sort of death for them. That death might be social. This is what makes a situation where people will be rejected for a particular belief so potentially costly.

            Furthermore, in some situations Trump seems to be some groups only option. If people are fed up with politics and they want a strong national identity, then he is the only option. A person finds out that the presidential primary is coming, and then they think about what they think of politics. They realize that they dislike politics, because they think that politicians are always evil and self-motivated. So they learn that there is a candidate without experience as a professional politician.  Then he becomes their preference. This is helpful for them because then they can go with that one thing that they want. They may have no options other than this person.

            A person may feel pushed or cornered into this support of Trump because they don’t know anyone else in their community who is in support of another candidate. And their closest relationships may be all with people who are supporting Trump. Fear of changing their belief may exist in that person. They may anticipate conjuring wrath or rejection from those with whom they are in close relationship. This anticipated rejection often keeps people from switching positions.

Personal Implications

A person may come to stand against marriage where the roles are gendered. The reason for this may be because the message that they have received all their life about how relationships ought to be. Imagine her living in that environment. First, she lives in a town that is mostly conservative Christian, then she goes to a private school, and then stays in that town working in the Christian bookstore. At no point must she live with others in such a way that challenges her position against gendered roles.

            An important thing to recognize while discussing adaptive preference is that this concept also applies to me. I am a person who has aspired to develop good writing skills, or to develop a good juvenile justice system. These are preferences which I have developed based on my environments. I have come to want to restore the juvenile justice system as a result of being at Gordon. Being at Gordon I have seen people care about this. Now we are back to mimetic desire. We must realize the importance of having other people around to demonstrate the desires we want to cultivate in people. We can also remember the SEWA people that the organization in India ministered to. They showed videos of women similar to the women who were presented to the video doing things like going out and affiliating with new people, and that helped them to long for and desire that new condition.

            If I have “chosen Christianity” and I’m going to use the language of choice, I must ask if I really had any other options. It seems difficult and unrealistic to expect me to enter another meaning framework or faith commitment in my years up through 9th grade because my only affiliations were with people who were Christians. My only adult relationships that I had were in relationship with Christian older people. My only peers and Christians family all identified as Christian. I would be the one odd person out if I rejected Christianity. “Sure” I said, “I’ll take up my cross daily” and at least take on the Christian identity marker and make effort to do it if that’s the only thing I’ve been exposed to. To choose anything else would have meant being put out from the community. And that would have been death for me. But then when I started to develop other friends and relationships outside of that community I began to come closer to having a real option. Though, I still did not have any close adult relationships who could have served as mentors for me to step into this other faith commitment, even if that were atheism. Or if it were a more mystical sense of reality and God. If I had had a wider circle of affiliation, my choice of Christianity would have been more meaningful. This is not to deny the good that it created in my life, but to recognize that some of the reason I “chose” Christianity was because it was the only real option I had.


In summary, people experience adaptive freedom, and the awareness of it can either bringing them into despair or pull them to greater compassion towards others. If they take it too far and altogether reject choice and they will lose hope, but if they keep the concept of choice and believe that this does affect people though, then they will be illuminated to have more grace for people. Furthermore, the concept of adaptive preference is similar to mimetic desire. Both describe the development of desire in people; however, they differ in their account of whether others are necessary for the development of those desires. Mimetic desire attributes desires’ origin more to others, while adaptive preference attributes desires’ origins to circumstances that are limited in the options, they realistically offer their participants or the people living in those circumstances. I hope that we can take this knowledge and be inspired to greater grace and understanding with it.



George, Ivy. Class Discussions. 2016.

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. 1972. Paris.

Nussbaum, Martha. Women and Human Development. 2001. New York: Cambridge Press.

Taylor, James. The Balkans Semester Seminars. 2015.

I wrote this paper for the Gordon College course, Women and World Development. Find the syllabus below.