Transformative Experience

L.A. Paul

Book cover

This book takes on a really interesting topic, but in my opinion, the author’s treatment falls short of satisfying. The basic premise is to discuss how people ought to behave when facing decisions that are likely to have dramatic and transformative effects, such that it is difficult to imagine what the outcomes will “be like” for us, or even such that we believe the experience itself will transform our preferences in unpredictable ways. Paul introduces the topic with the slightly silly example of whether to become a vampire, but she also gives extensive discussions of the decisions of whether a hearing-impaired person should get a cochlear implant and whether a childless person should have a child. These are certainly rare decisions, but also very important ones, so it makes sense to have a focused philosophical discussion of them.

Fundamentally, she says that this class of decision causes problems for classical rational choice theory. There is no way for us to assign valid utilities to the various possible outcomes, and therefore no way to choose based on maximization of expected value, or even weaker criteria such as maximin or maximax. (She also discusses time-inconsistency in cases of preference transformation, but I don’t really see that as a necessary component of the problem.) She sets off to rescue rational choice, and discusses two alternative approaches.

One, which she rejects, is to make the decision from a neutral third-person perspective, based on whatever aggregate evidence is available. For example, one could decide whether or not to have a child based on surveys of reported satisfaction by parents and non-parents, controlling for relevant characteristics. Paul rejects this approach for a couple of reasons. The less-deep reason is that there is always variation even when controlling for observable characteristics, and we don’t know which unobservable group we fall into. The deeper reason is simply that she sees it as important that major life decisions be made from a first-person perspective, because it is important for us to have agency in our own lives. This is pretty much an axiomatic assumption, but one that I wouldn’t necessarily argue with.

The second, which she advocates, is to evaluate the decision not based on the (unknowable) subjective values of the outcomes, but rather on the (presumed knowable) subjective value of the “revelation” itself. She says that we may place some value on the very experience of learning what it is like to be a parent, a vampire, etc.–regardless of how much we like the actual consequences–and that we can make a rational first-person choice based on assessing this value.

This argument is interesting, but ultimately strikes me as something of a Procrustean bed. First, it is not obvious to me why rational choice theory deserves rehabilitating in this context. Paul seems to take this as self evident. I would ask why we see rational choice as a normative standard in the first place. I think the answer to that question would have to have some kind of utilitarian flavor, e.g., we think that human preference satisfaction is good, and rational choice is a framework that leads to the highest possible level of preference satisfaction. In the context of transformative choice, however, this justification is invalid. If we can’t know the subjective values we will place on the possible outcomes, then ipso facto there is no decision-making framework that will consistently perform better than any other in terms of achieving preference satisfaction (i.e., whether a given decision-making framework leads to a bad or good outcome will be purely coincidental). If a first-person utilitarian perspective doesn’t provide us with a decision rule of any value, we might consider other frameworks such as deontology or virtue ethics that could help us make a decision without regard to the (unknowable) utility consequences.

Actually, it seems to me that rational choice theory is in general not necessarily a good guide for making life-altering decisions, even when the consequences are more or less comprehensible. We know from psychological research that there are two broad classes of happiness: pleasure and flourishing, more or less. Utilitarian rational choice seems pretty well-suited to choices that primarily bear on the former. An example that Paul uses in the book is whether to eat pineapple or durian for breakfast. This will have consequences in terms of our pleasure or pain, but will not really have any bearing on our life flourishing. It is generally pretty easy for us to “mentally simulate” the different alternatives, and choose the one that we think will provide the highest expected level of pleasure. However, it is difficult or impossible to “mentally simulate” the pleasure consequences of life-altering events. First of all, we can’t really imagine a life-long stream of outcomes in the same way that we can imagine a discrete outcome, and second of all, it is well-known that people strongly adapt to both positive and negative events such that long-term effects on happiness are generally muted or even nonmeasurable. So I am not sure what utilitarian rational choice has to say about choices that bear on the flourishing type of happiness. By contrast, deontological or virtue frameworks seem to have a lot to say about those types of decisions. For example, it might be difficult for us to tell what the utility consequences of becoming a soldier would be, but considerations of duty and virtue would be extremely relevant.

Paul’s concept of “the value of revelation” seems to fall more into the “flourishing” category than the “pleasure” category. Presumably, she doesn’t think we get some direct pleasure or pain from the experience of revelation; rather, she means that the revelation has some bearing on our flourishing. For example, one might think that it is important and valuable to explore as many aspects of the human experience as possible, and include parenthood in that list of aspects (regardless of whether or not it was pleasurable on net). It seems to me to stretch credibility a bit to characterize a decision made on such a basis as a utilitarian rational choice. It seems much more related to virtue ethics (“I want to be the kind of person who…”). So, I think Paul does the reader and the topic a disservice by not discussing the different classes of happiness and not discussing non-utility-based frameworks (except for a couple of offhanded remarks).

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars