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Open for Debate

Choosing for Changing Selves

18 October 2021

Our values change. What we want, value, prefer, desire, and how much; for nearly everyone, these will be different at different times in their lives. Perhaps when you were younger, you valued a life of action more than the life of the mind, but now you value intellectual pursuits above practical ones. Perhaps now you value intense, exclusive romantic relationships above varied and mixed friendships, but when you were younger that was reversed. And so on.

The issue I want to discuss here does not arise merely because our values change, but because we can sometimes choose courses of actions that we know are very likely to bring about such a change. One example is the decision to become a parent for those who are able to make that decision. Many new parents describe the experience as changing their values. Some who were reasonably indifferent to the prospect of raising a child become completely devoted to it after the child arrives; they come to value it above almost all else. So I could choose something I currently don’t much want, but which I know I’ll come to want if I choose it. Another example is emigration to a new country whose population has a different distribution of values from the country from which you are moving. Research by the social psychologist Anat Bardi suggests that, because emigration entails a total change in your social environment that emigration, your values to change to fit better with the values of the society in which you now live.

The philosopher Edna Ullmann-Margalit called such choices big decisions; the philosopher L. A. Paul calls the experiences to which they give rise, and which cause your values to change, personally transformative experiences. As we’ll see here and in the coming two blogposts, transformative experiences raise a number of interesting philosophical, ethical, and political problems. They raise problems for us as individuals when we face major life choices; they raise problems for us as members of society when we ask what interventions in our lives it is legitimate for governments to make; and they raise problems for whole societies when they think about how they should try to shape the far future of humanity.

Let’s start here at the level of the individual. Suppose you face one of Ullmann-Margalit’s big decisions: perhaps you’re deciding whether to adopt a child, or whether to emigrate to another country. How should you choose? The problem is that the usual strategies we think we should use when we make our decisions don’t immediately seem to give us the guidance we need in these cases. Suppose that I am deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when I go for a walk. Then my decision should depend on how likely I think it is that it will rain, but also on how much I value staying dry if it does rain, how much I value being unencumbered when I’m walking, and so on. So standardly we think that which choice I should make depends in part on what I value. But then we face a puzzle when what we value changes over time. To which values should we appeal when we make our decision? Those to which we are committed at the time we make the decision? Or those we have when the effects of the decision are felt? Or something else entirely? This is the problem that big decisions raise. When I try to decide whether or not to become a parent, I might think it likely that my values will change should I decide to have a child. To which set of values should I appeal when I make the choice? My current values might push me to remain child-free, while my future values as a parent might endorse taking that route. And similarly for the decision whether or not to emigrate: should my decision be driven by my current values or the ones I can predict I would have were I to move to another country?

Two years ago, after a long period trying to decide myself whether or not to adopt a child, I wrote a book called Choosing for Changing Selves. In that, I argued that, in these situations, I should treat myself not as a single unified person who is now making a decision and who will also live through the consequences of that decision, but rather as a corporate entity, a collective, an aggregate of different selves with different values that together make up the person I call Richard Pettigrew. So, were I to choose to become a parent and were my values to change as a result of this, I’d be a collective entity composed of at least two selves—my self before adopting the child, who might value remaining child-free more than being a parent, and my self after adopting, who might have reversed these values.

It’s worth saying that there’s nothing particularly novel about this perspective. On some interpretations, the ancient Buddhist doctrine of anattā or anātman denies that each of us is a single, unchanging, coherent individual throughout their life, though this is very much contested. And within early modern and modern European philosophy, David Hume made a similar claim, and Nietzsche hints at something like this at some points. And then again in the mid-twentieth century, feminist philosophers like Jean Grimshaw and Seyla Benhabib noted that many existing notions of autonomy in liberal thinking relied on such a unified, extended self, and they argued persuasively that typically no such thing is to be found. So I am building here on a long anti-Cartesian tradition.

How does thinking in this collective way help? It allows us to see these big decisions as ones that we make on behalf of the collective that is the person to which our current self belongs. At the moment, it’s my current self that has the power to make decisions on behalf of this collective. But of course I’ll step down at some point and pass on that decision-making power to the next self that replaces me, just as it was passed on to me by my previous self. Given that the decisions I make now will affect those future selves, it seems I have an obligation to take their values into account along with my own, even though I might be permitted to give mine a bit more weight. And, perhaps more surprisingly, if my past selves made sacrifices that put me in the position I am in now as my current self, perhaps I have an obligation to take their values into account as well.

So, when I think about whether to become a parent, I am making a decision on behalf of the collective composed of my various selves, past, present, and future. I know there’s some chance that, if I were to become a parent, my values should change, and so when I incorporate the value of that outcome into my decision making, it should be some aggregation of way in which my past, present, and future selves value it. Something akin to a moral duty to my other selves imposes certain constraints on how I aggregate their various values: I must give some weight to my future selves, since my decision affects them; and I must give some weight to my past selves if I owe them a debt of gratitude because of sacrifices they made. But this leaves a lot of wiggle room; it does not pin down exactly how much weight each is owed. So it can be rational to choose to adopt even if currently I don’t want to because of the weight I give to my future selves, just as it can be rational for me to choose against my own narrow interests in the political sphere because of the weight I accord the other people with whom I share that sphere.