Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say it’s incredible.
Would you do it, even knowing that you could never go back? The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like or whether you would like it?
In her book “Transformative Experience,” L.A. Paul, a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says life is filled with decisions that are a bit like this, in which you end up changing who you are and what you want.
People who have a child become different. Joining the military is another transformational experience. So are marrying, changing careers, switching religions.
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Paul’s point is that we’re ignorant about many life choices and that it’s not possible to make purely rational decisions. “You shouldn’t fool yourself,” she writes. “You have no idea what you are getting into.”
So how do you make transformational decisions? You have to ask the right questions, Paul argues. Don’t ask, Will I like parenting? You can’t know. Instead ask, Do I have a profound desire to discover what it would be like to be this new me?
As she puts it, “The best response ... is to choose ... whether we want to discover who we'll become.”
Personally, I think Paul’s description of the problem is ingenious, but her solution is incomplete. Would you really trust yourself to raise a child on the basis of self-revelation? Curiosity is too thin, relativistic and ephemeral.
I’d say to really make these decisions you need to step outside the modern conception of ourselves as cognitive creatures who are most sophisticated when we rely on rationality.
The most reliable decision-making guides are more “primitive.” We’re historical, social and mystical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, we undertake transformational challenges not to fulfill our desires, but because it is good for our kind, and when people make a transformational choice they feel it less a choice and more a calling.
Most important, however, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our moral intuitions are more durable than our desires. The person who shoots for virtue will more reliably be happy with her new self.
These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping, we are autonomous creatures looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.