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How to Make Life-Changing Decisions

Source: Nathaniel Peters via thepublicdiscourse.com

Originally appeared in  The Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton NJ, and is reprinted with permission

For the most significant choices of our lives, we only learn what the decision entails after we make it. This creates something of a dilemma. We only get the information needed to make a well-informed decision after we have committed to a particular choice. We are confronted with choices whose outcomes, potential goods, and impact on our lives we cannot fully anticipate.

In July 1838, a young Charles Darwin deliberated whether or not he should marry. Like many faced with an important decision, he made a list of pros and cons in his diary:

This is the Question


Children—(if it Please God) — Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,— object to be beloved & played with.— —better than a dog anyhow.— Home, & someone to take care of house— Charms of music & female chit-chat.— These things good for one’s health.— but terrible loss of time. —

My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.— No, no won’t do.— Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London House.— Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps— Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.

Marry—Mary—Marry Q.E.D.,

Not Marry

Freedom to go where one liked— choice of Society & little of it. — Conversation of clever men at clubs— Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.— to have the expense & anxiety of children— perhaps quarelling— Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings— fatness & idleness— Anxiety & responsibility— less money for books &c— if many children forced to gain one’s bread.— (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool—

Darwin thought his proof concluded in marriage. Six months later he wedded his cousin Emma Wedgwood, with whom he had a long marriage and many children. But of course—as one imagines Darwin realized later—his list is no proof at all. What is ostensibly an exercise in rational decision-making is actually a way by which Darwin discerns his deepest and strongest desires for an important human good that he does not fully understand.

In cases like marriage, the object of our choice is a new way of life, a new horizon along which our life will unfold. When we make the choice to take vows of marriage or celibacy, to embrace a professional vocation, or to welcome children into our lives, we are choosing a new framework that will define us and within which we will act and make new choices. The only way we can know such a way of life is by inhabiting it from the inside, by living it. This is why Darwin’s calculus is clearly that of a young bachelor. His descriptions of marriage are the superficial traits one would perceive from the outside. Writing about Darwin’s pro–con list, Agnes Callard asks, “what alternative does he have? The distinctively first-person joys of married life are all but invisible to the person who has not yet partaken of them.” When it comes to life’s most significant choices, we can choose what we think will be good for us, but we do not really know what we are choosing.

Transformative Experiences

The philosopher L. A. Paul explores this paradox in her 2016 book Transformative Experience. We instinctively think about making major decisions by considering the question at hand in light of our values or what we care about. We also make decisions by imagining their results and how they correspond to our current desires and beliefs: “If I go to X college, or grad school, or marry Y, it will be like this, and that will be good or bad for me.”

But for the most significant choices of our lives, we only learn what the decision entails after we make it. This creates something of a dilemma. We only get the information needed to make the decision with full knowledge after we have committed to a particular choice. Even if we try to escape the dilemma by avoiding the experience, we have still made a choice. Either way, we are confronted with a choice whose outcomes, potential goods, and impact on our lives we cannot fully anticipate.

Paul refers to such choices as “transformative experiences,” and describes them as epistemically and personally transformative. An epistemically transformative experience is one that “teaches you something you could not have learned without having that kind of experience.” Once you have had this experience, you can perceive and imagine experiences like it in a way that would have been impossible before. A personally transformative experience changes you in a deeper way, on the level of core values, desires, and how you understand “the kind of person you take yourself to be.” A transformative experience, Paul concludes, changes you both epistemically and personally. It gives you new knowledge and makes you into a different person.

For the most significant choices of our lives, we only learn what the decision entails after we make it.

Transformative experiences pose a problem for authentic rational decision-making, Paul argues. We cannot grasp the outcomes of our future acts, nor can we grasp the ways in which they will change our perspectives. Transformative experiences change us in significant ways that we cannot foresee. As a result, she writes, “having the new experience can dramatically change how your post-experience self values the outcomes, including your valuing of your higher-order values, creating a problem for how you are to adjudicate between these different sets of preferences.” If you are an Evangelical converting to Catholicism, or a woman who decides to have children, you have no way of knowing what your Catholic or maternal self will be like, and whether or not those decisions will make her happy and fulfilled.

As we saw in the example of Darwin, these transformative experiences cannot be chosen with clear, rational calculation since we do not fully know what we are choosing and how it will change us. Callard explores the character of such personal decisions by contrasting them with major public decisions, for example the way in which President Obama, his advisers, and the U.S. military made the decision to raid the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding out. Suppose that Obama and his staff had looked into a crystal ball and seen the results of the raid. They would do so with clear markers of success and failure and see that the Marines succeeded in killing bin Laden. But, Callard asks, could you look into the same crystal ball and see whether going to college or emigrating or marrying would make you happy in twenty or forty years?

What do I look for to check whether the undertaking was a success? Do I look to see if she is smiling? Or how wealthy my future self is? Those metrics won’t do. Perhaps my future self does not care to smile all the time; and perhaps she’s less interested in wealth than I currently am. These changes in her might have been connected to her finding some happiness that I can’t (yet) fathom. … What makes big decisions big is that they set into motion changes not only in the outside world, but in ourselves. Becoming a mother means having new desires, feelings, habits, knowledge, and even new decision-procedures.

Of course, this is not to say that deliberative reasoning has no place in life. When we have a firm grasp of the end of our decision-making and must choose between a variety of means to attain it, deliberation helps us choose well. When the end is less clear, though, the limits of our reasoning become apparent. Deliberating the pros and cons of which software to use as a financial analyst is clearer than deliberating whether to work for JP Morgan or pursue a doctorate in the humanities. “Sometimes,” Callard concludes, “you need to step forward, with uncertainty, into a future you cannot rubber-stamp in advance.”

Young people faced with important choices can find them frightening and paralyzing, but Callard’s and Paul’s analyses give some counsel for how to make those choices well. First, we must recognize that these choices are an inescapable part of human life. To shy away from making them is itself still a choice. Our existence is finite and our comprehension limited. Much lies outside our control and capacity to plan and prepare. Uncertainty remains part of the human condition. The correct way to approach transformative experiences, then, is with prudence and courage. We must boldly step out into the unknown in order to live worthwhile and flourishing lives, to seek what we think will make us happy even if we do not know how it will change our understanding of happiness.

Meditation and Calculation

Discerning our happiness and making choices accordingly also requires us to discern what goods we desire. Catholic University business professor Luke Burgis counsels that this will involve thinking that is more meditative than calculative. But even calculative thought can be helpful when it serves as a tool for pondering our deeper desires, allowing the thicker ones to emerge and the thin ones to thin out. As we see in Darwin’s own attempt to balance quiet reading time with abiding companionship, the calculation of competing goods can clarify which ones are more important than others, and which ones cannot be measured in a rational or utilitarian way.

To use another example, Persi Diaconis, a professor of mathematics at Stanford and a MacArthur fellow, recalls: “Some years ago I was trying to decide whether or not to move to Harvard from Stanford. I had bored my friends silly with endless discussion. Finally, one of them said, ‘You’re one of our leading decision theorists. Maybe you should make a list of the costs and benefits and try to roughly calculate your expected utility.’ Without thinking I blurted out, ‘Come on, Sandy, this is serious.’” Again, the point is not that calculation is bad, but that it is not enough. The more unknown goods are, and the more likely they are to change us, the more they require the discernment of our deepest desires and how they correspond to the deepest human goods.

Models of good lives are essential for that discernment as well. We make decisions not as isolated individuals, but supported by relationships with those who know and love us. These people cannot make our decisions for us, but we can draw on their experiences of making important decisions. Those who are older than we are might have a better sense of what our future self would want than we do now. We can also use the lived experience of human life over time to guide us. We might not understand why we should marry someone with similar values, or have children someday, or choose a career based on proximity to home and family. It may not make sense to weigh family as a serious consideration alongside career. But we would do well to pay attention to the wisdom and practice of our churches, relations, or authors like Tolstoy, because there are probably reasons for these practices, even if we do not yet know them.

The more unknown goods are, and the more likely they are to change us, the more they require the discernment of our deepest desires and how they correspond to the deepest human goods.

Finally, while transformative experiences do change us, it is rare that they change us completely. A sound set of moral, religious, and philosophical values becomes vital in this case. These provide an enduring or at least less shifting guidance for what is good and choiceworthy in life. They clarify which goods are real and which are apparent. They remind us that human beings were made to give their lives away in love, that that is the structure of our being, and that our happiness will ultimately depend on how we conform to that logic of love. Our values may change in some ways, of course, but a core set is likely to provide significant continuity.

Finally, perhaps the greatest aid of all—and the greatest support of courage and prudence—is a deep faith in divine providence. Trust in God’s guidance reminds us that we face the unknown with the help of One who knows all and cares for us, the one who will transform us through our experiences into who he has created us to be, if we let him. This culminates in our union with him in heaven, the most transformative experience of all, one that we can only begin to imagine but that we trust will bring our greatest happiness.

Nathaniel Peters is Contributing Editor of Public Discourse and Director of the Morningside Institute.

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