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Must Theorising about Adaptive Preferences Deny Women's Agency?



Critics argue that adaptive preference (AP) theorists misrepresent oppressed people's reasons for perpetuating their oppression. According to critics, AP theorists assume that people who adapt their preferences to unjust conditions lack the psychic capacities that would allow them to develop their own normative perspectives and/or form appropriate values. The misrepresentation is morally problematic, because it promotes unjustified paternalism and perpetuates colonial stereotypes of third-world women. I argue that we can imagine a conception of AP that is consistent with acknowledging agency in people who perpetuate their oppression. I offer a weak perfectionist conception of AP that is consistent with recognising agentic capacities in the oppressed. On my conception, APs are preferences incompatible with an agent's basic wellbeing that formed under unjust conditions — and that an agent would reverse upon exposure to better conditions. My conception encourages respectful treatment of the oppressed without requiring us to abandon the feminist political goals the notion of AP is meant to serve. It helps us identify real-world preferences that are problematically adapted to oppressive conditions and offers an account of why they seem not to be women's ‘true preferences’.