Some economists/political scientists/philosophers (it's sometimes hard to classify them) have used in their theories a concept of "empathetic preferences", also known as "extended sympathy preferences" - by which they they understand a preference of being a person X under a circumstance p than a person Y under a circumstance q, i.e. a counterfactual comparison of two different persons under two different situations. One needs to both empathise with two different persons to take into account their different preferences and create his own preference, hence the name empathetic preferences. A problematic concept to say at least, but nothing really important for those who used it (Kenneth Arrow, Patrick Suppes). But Ken Binmore, quite a known chap in math, game theory and economics, devised a whole theory explaining humans' natural sense of fairness in which empathetic preferences play a crucial role, grounding interpersonal comparisons of utility (technical exposition in "Game Theory and the Social Contract" from 1994, more readable in "Natural Justice from 2005").

Has anything remotely relevant been studied by psychologists/cognitive scientists? Binmore is claiming that empathetic preferences are very similiar to empathy and basically "every properly socialized human being has them". He also claims that there are tons of research on empathy that support his view, without citing anything relevant. The problem is that he is not "philosophising" them, conjuring them out of nothing like some political philosophers - he claims that this is how human beings work.

Binmore's example of empathetic preference - if we know that Eve likes apples and Adam does not mind being naked, we might think "I would rather be Eve eating an apple than Adam wearing a fig leaf".

For me this seems utterly implausible, and making such comparison is just impossible. Also, as we are never different persons, why would we be capable of doing that? But it's not like he was some guy on a University of Woolamaloo writing things that only his PhD students read, he's a world-class economist, claiming empirical support of his work, and I'm curious if there is any.


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