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Transformative choice and “Big Decisions”

Imagine being invited by a trusted friend to a “life-changing” event. Should you go? Your friend says her life has been transformed by such events and you believe her. The event could be a church service, self-help talk, concert, movie, festival, hike, play, dinner party, book club, union organizing meeting, etc.: whatever you find easiest to allow unfolding such that you are likely to be changed in some fundamental way. Do you go? Why or why not? What sorts of considerations do you reach for in making your choice?

Most prominently in her book Transformative Experience (OUP, 2014), the philosopher L. A. Paul has put problems like these, termed transformative choices, on the map for philosophical and scientific inquiry. Focusing on some exemplary cases, such as that of whether to become a parent, Paul has argued that there may not be satisfactory reasons available for making transformative choices, at least given certain common assumptions, some of which are codified in standard decision theory.

The problem of how to make transformative choices is not simply a philosophical one, but rather a predicament that can arise for anyone in their daily life. Nor is Paul the first philosopher to identify the force of this problem. Prior to Paul’s work, Edna Ullmann-Margalit also discussed the phenomenon of transformative decision-making, and identified some of the philosophical  issues it raises (see the essay “Big Decisions”, reprinted in her Normal Rationality, OUP, 2017). While Paul and others have duly acknowledged Ullmann-Margalit’s work, we believe it remains underappreciated for what it can add to current discussions, and wish here to continue amplifying her distinctive contribution. Of particular interest is the detailed framework that Ullmann-Margalit constructs for making sense of transformative choices. As our way into this framework, let’s begin by considering what rational choice generally involves.

“The problem of how to make transformative choices is not simply a philosophical one, but rather a predicament that can arise for anyone in their daily life.”

To be rational in your choices, you need to make the best decisions you can. Best by what measure? This is controversial, of course, but one common answer is that the best choice in a given situation is the one that wins a pro/con contest, i.e., the one that has the strongest upside once all the downsides have been considered. “Standard decision theory” is a formalization of this plausible idea. Assuming certain things about our beliefs and desires or preferences, decision theory gives us quantified expected values for each choice under consideration. The option with the highest expected value is the rational one to choose.

Some of the assumptions that are necessary to achieve this calculus are stronger and more questionable than others. And the problem of transformative choice can be thought of as challenging particular assumptions of this framework. But sometimes people chafe at the very idea that crucial decisions like parenting can be construed merely as an exercise of weighing pros and cons. Ullman-Margalit has a compelling diagnosis of this felt resistance, proceeding from her account of transformative choice.

Planning groceries for the week is a good example of a kind of decision-making that most everyone could agree is adequately covered by standard decision theory. You’ve got some stable preferences, plus expectations about price and availability. Your decisions each week may be subject to such things as your bank account balance, the time you have to shop, whether you’re tired of a certain dish, the unexpected availability of certain items, etc. The question of how to adjust your list each week seems unobjectionably subject to a cost/benefit calculation and is easily modeled by standard decision theory. Ullmann-Margalit categorizes choices like these as “medium” decisions and agrees that it’s possible to approach them rationally in this way.

In contrast with making your list, the activity of actually finding your listed items at the grocery store is full of decisions that Ullmann-Margalit calls “small.” Which box of corn flakes should you pick out of all the identical ones before you? The usual calculus doesn’t apply here, except trivially. Sure, you face a problem of selecting which item to reach for, but it would make no sense at all to deliberate over the possibilities. As opposed to genuinely “choosing,” Ullmann-Margalit says that we simply pick which box to take off the shelf. What the example helpfully provides is a relatively uncontroversial example of a decision problem for which it would be a mistake to employ the standard decision calculus as a tool.

“When we approach ‘medium’ decisions, we evaluate our options and the different considerations for each. But with ‘big’ decisions we are faced with the possibility of altering the very mindset on the basis of which medium decisions are made.”

“Big” decisions are the other area where standard decision theory sometimes seems to break down, but now for much more interesting reasons. For big decisions are the ones that threaten to transform the very basis on which we choose what to do. When we approach “medium” decisions, we evaluate our options and the different considerations for each. But with “big” decisions we are faced with the possibility of altering the very mindset on the basis of which medium decisions are made—and it can be hard to see how such a choice can itself be made rationally, at least by the lights of standard decision theory. To extend our metaphor, suppose you have a friend from a different culture. Their approach to food procurement is very different, with divergent food preferences being just a start. Suppose it was an option to change your preferences, beliefs, habits, etc. to be like theirs. Or suppose that something you did really want to do, such as spending a lot of time with this friend and her family, would likely have the side-effect of changing you in just these ways. Many people will find something inappropriate in the idea of subjecting such decisions to a cost-benefit calculus. Ullmann-Margalit suggests that this is because such a thing is really impossible: in order to perform this analysis you’d need to base it on your current mindset, and yet this mindset is just what the choice is going to change!

In her work, Ullmann-Margalit calls the pool of resources we draw on in decision-making our rationality base. Big decisions, or transformative choices, are those which promise to alter our rationality base in some crucial and irreversible way. Many philosophers talk, as we have above, about our rationality base as composed of beliefs and desires. Standard decision theory employs the language of credences and preferences. Many outside of those contexts would talk about commitments and values. The problem of transformative choice can be put in any of these terms. In the wake of a transformative choice, the choice-maker is left with values, desires, preferences (or whatever else) that either contrast with, or simply don’t make sense from the perspective of, the values, desires, preferences, etc. that she had beforehand, and that she relied on in making the choice. Yet choose we must—or, opt we must, as Ullman-Margalit prefers to put it. (As with small decisions where standard decision theory is deemed inapplicable and so we “pick” rather than “choose”, Ullmann-Margalit says that we “opt” in cases where decisions are big enough to overwhelm our rationality bases.) In transformative decision making we cannot opt rationally, but Ullmann-Margalit holds out hope that we can at least be reasonable in what we opt to do. Whether, or how, one might opt reasonablywhen faced with a transformative choice remains an open question.

Featured image by Victoriano Izquierdo via Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. David Moore

    I am ready to make a big transformative decision and become a financial advisor/ planner. I am and have been most of my adult life working in manufacturing.
    I never wanted to make a career out of it, I only originally wanted to be a couple of years until I’d saved enough for law school. I have a mental block that tells me at my age, ( 58), it is foolish to start over. If I didn’t have to support my wife, it would be so much easier to take a chance on a new less secure income. How do I decide wether this big change i dream of is foolishness or the right move?

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