Are Common Preferences Always Possible?
written by Elliot Temple
Originally posted on the Taking Children Seriously List, on September 8, 2009 3:37:39 PM PDT

TCS says common preferences (CPs) are always possible. (Note: a common preference is a way of proceeding in which no one is coerced.)

I have tried asking some TCS supporters about this (a dozen or so people, nothing personal). They have all said common preferences are either always or usually possible. Some claimed to know why, and others were more modest. (I wonder why these modest people haven't been interested enough to learn whether CPs are always possible?)

Next I asked for an argument that CPs are always (or even usually) possible. No one has been able to give one. Some people seem to be inventing their answer on the spot. (How can one be a TCS supporter but not already know a satisfactory argument that TCS is true?).

In 2001, Kolya criticized TCS on this point, on the TCS list. He said (paraphrased):

1) TCS says common preferences are always possible
2) TCS says they are possible because of the power of reasoned, Popperian discussion to converge on the truth, so that people agree

And he pointed out that while he agreed that reasoned knowledge creation does lead to agreement, in principle, because there is one single truth, it can take an indefinite amount of time to agree on any given issue. But we need common preferences today, and we need to be able to reliably create them in a reasonable amount of time. If we can't do that, then common preferences are not always possible.

I think Kolya's argument about time is clearly correct, and so (2) is false. However, I do not think TCS says (2).

Of course reason is powerful -- I don't want to knock it -- and sometimes we come to agree quickly, but the issue is whether common preferences are always possible (or even usually), and for that issue, the fact is that many disagreements last centuries. This isn't because people are irrational (which sure doesn't help), it's primarily because knowledge is hard to come by and truth isn't obvious. So this is not a method by which we can always find CPs quickly.

What surprised me is that, apparently, few TCS supporters have any argument that TCS is true, and many answers I got were a version of (2).

David Deutsch replied to Kolya's criticism on the TCS list back in 2001, but while that reply pointed out various misconceptions Kolya had, it did not actually say how CPs can always be found. Years ago, I asked David Deutsch about this, and he told me how common preferences are always possible, which is not a variant of (2). As far as I know, his explanation is true. Also to the best of my knowledge, Kolya has never criticized or even mentioned it.

Some people have not felt the need to ask about this, and have just accepted the TCS line without knowing why it's true. No doubt someone will ask now that I point this out. But it's important to question one's beliefs before people point out flaws in them, especially when they aren't mainstream common sense. We should not adopt unusual views without really thinking them through. The flaw in (2) is not really all that hard to see. People frequently try to use reasoned discussions to agree about things, and sometimes it works, and sometimes they still disagree; this is common knowledge. So how can one really think this method people use all the time, with mixed results, can be a reliable way to say CPs are always (or even usually) possible for normal people, today? To reasonably say something is possible, which many people fail to achieve, you need some idea about how to do things differently than they do.

Would anyone here, besides David, like to give an argument that CPs are always possible, which they already knew yesterday?

[Editor's note: in the essay on the Fallible Ideas site, Coercion, Elliot discusses the idea of coercion. In the essay Avoiding Coercion, Elliot addresses how common preferences are always possible. Common preferences are things to do that aren't coercive. They don't requite convergence on long-term goals right now -- but they do require the right approach, described in the Avoiding Coercion essay)