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Can We Make Life Choices Rationally?

Written by Daniel Villiger

Do I want to have children? This is one of the big life decisions. If I choose to have a child and am successful, I will become a parent and will experience the ups and downs, the advantages and disadvantages of being a parent. On the other hand, if I choose to remain childfree, I may miss out on all of these experiences; or I may be spared from them. So, how should I decide?

Fortunately, decision theory provides a general guideline for making decisions rationally. We start by imagining what it would be like if we chose option A and assign a value to this state. Then, we do the same for option B, valuing that state as well. Finally, we compare the two expected values and choose the option with the higher value. So, deciding whether to have a child seems easy: we simply apply this method and it will tell us what to do, right?

Unfortunately, there’s a problem here: How can I know what it’s like to be a parent if I’m not a parent? In fact, becoming a parent is what Laurie Paul calls a transformative experience. On the one hand, it transforms our knowledge because only by becoming a parent can we learn what it is like to be a parent. In other words, becoming a parent is epistemically transformative and we only gain epistemic access to the value of being a parent by becoming a parent. On the other hand, becoming a parent can also transform us personally by changing our very preferences: things we value as a non-parent we may no longer value as a parent and vice versa. Not only can such a personal transformation obscure what our parent preferences will entail, but it also makes it unclear whether we should base our decision on our current non-parent preferences or our future parent preferences (or some aggregation thereof). As we can see, the transformative nature of becoming a parent makes its expected value impossible to assess; decision theory gets stuck.

Ten years have passed since Laurie Paul has published this general line of argument in her groundbreaking book Transformative Experience. In a recent article in Philosophy Compass, I analyse the underlying assumptions of Paul’s argumentation and provide a structured overview of the many responses that it has provoked. These responses suggest that our imaginative capacities may be better than Paul assumes, allowing us to evaluate outcomes even if we have not experienced them before. In addition, if we are unable to evaluate an as yet unexperienced outcome by ourselves, we can consult testimony and use the values of those who have already experienced the outcome to reach a rational choice (a method that Paul rejects because, in her view, it leads to inauthentic choices). So, among decision theorists, there’s much debate over whether transformative experiences truly prevent rational decision-making.

But the concept of transformative experience has proven relevant not only to decision theory, but also to other fields as it provides a fruitful framework for understanding the richness of experience, transformational processes, and their implications. In the Philosophy Compass article, I provide a brief discussion of work that applies the concept of transformative experiences to illness, medical treatment, and the ethical issues involved. Both illness and treatment can be transformative, which raises ethical questions such as: Should advance directives that refer to degenerative diseases such as dementia carry low moral weight? Or, can you give informed consent to a transformative treatment of which you cannot evaluate its possible outcomes? Obviously, the answers to these questions have important practical implications.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Paul’s idea of transformative experience has taken the academic world by storm: in just ten years it has become a well-established and much-discussed concept in decision theory and beyond. While it remains to be seen what the next decade of research on transformative experience will reveal and where it will lead us, I’m sure of one thing: it will continue to be a very active and illuminating topic.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. At this question we should return to Freud. According to his theory we conclude that our decision making has nothing in common with rationality. On the contrary it is based either on the emotions and above all on the subconscious mind. And this subconscious mind depends on/is derived from our upbringing. Let us look around. And we find out that all of us follow the examples of our parents. If they were BOTH good parents so we are. But if they weren’t also we decide badly (I say “badly” because having children is the principal sense of human existence). But we do not want to hear such explanation. If we say: “your life depends on your parents, grandparents” it is bad for those who are successful. Because we take their contributions away. And also it is bad for those who failed. Because we tell them that the reason why they failed is not in the outer world (as they often think) but is in them (in their subconscious). And furthermore: nothing can be done about that.

  2. Hi Pavel
    Freud’s belief that our upbringing and parents *influence* our character and decision-making is obviously correct. The problem is he took it to absurd lengths with his mental architecture that included his notion of the subconscious’ role in his bizarre construction.

    Freud was hopelessly confused by enlightenment and anti-enlightenment arguments that were prevalent at the time and failed to engage in the philosophical debates that undermined his pseudo-scientific theory. It can be argued that his and his colleagues’ works popularised the important role of “interpretation”. (Hermeneutics was at the time becoming an influential line of inquiry in Continental philosophy.) On balance, I think Freud et al were a harmful distraction and, especially with Freud, all too often treated their “patients” as a means to an end. It is perhaps too early to say whether that end and how it was acquired was worth all the harm and quackery.

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