It is an interesting fact about many of our most important choices, such as the choice of what kind of education to pursue, whether and whom to marry, and whether to have children – for short, life choices – that they transform us in ways we can’t fully anticipate, so that the person who lives with the consequences of the choice won’t be quite the same as the person who makes the choice. Recently, L.A. Paul has argued in a stimulating paper that the existence of such transformative experiences causes serious trouble for rational decision-making. I’ll grant here that her argument is more or less successful to the extent that the phenomenal quality of our experiences is central to the value of a choice or preference among options.

Alas, I think that precisely when it comes to the life choices that are associated with transformative experiences, phenomenal quality is relatively insignificant. After all, there is more to prudential value than positive experiences. Consequently, we make our life choices not on grounds of what we expect it to be like to lead a certain kind of life, but rather on the grounds of how it will shape our relationships, roles, and identities, in short, the story of our life, and have good reason to do so. As I prefer to put it, life choices are not experience-regarding, but primarily story-regarding, and should be such. Insofar as we can reliably compare the value of or form preferences between relationships and activities, and estimate their likelihood given our choices, we can after all make approximately rational self-interested life choices. Even if Mary can't know what it will be like for her to have a child, she can ask herself whether having a child would best promote connecting her to something larger than herself or best express her love and commitment to her partner, and use the answers as a basis for rational choice.

 Here is an argument that is suggested by Paul’s paper:

  1. Rational choice is a matter of (approximately) maximizing expected utility, which is calculated on the basis of expected value of outcomes and their probability given possible actions.
  2. When it comes to prudentially rational choice, what centrally determines the value of an outcome is what it would be like for the agent if an outcome were realized.
  3. “When a decision involves an outcome that is epistemically transformative for the decision-maker, she cannot rationally assign a value to the outcome until she has experienced the outcome.” (p. 12)
  4. “[S]ince having one’s own child is unlike any other human experience, before [a person] has had the experience of seeing and touching her newborn child, not only does she not know what it is like to have her child, she cannot know. … [H]aving a child is epistemically transformative.” (p. 8)
  5. So, it is not possible to rationally assign an expected value to the outcome of having or not having a child. (3, 4)
  6. Hence, it is not possible to make a prudentially rational choice about whether or not to have a child, since a central piece of information is missing. (1, 2, 5)

I say this argument is suggested by Paul’s paper. She doesn’t quite make it, since she is very explicit that the conclusion is that “you cannot rationally choose to have a child based on what you think it will be like to have a child” (p. 20) – that is, she doesn’t say there is no way to make a rational choice. But it is clear that she thinks that making the decision on a phenomenal basis (what it is like to have a child) is a) the ordinary, common sense way of making it, and b) the rationally preferable way of making it, as long as you don’t take into account moral or, say, environmental considerations, or instrumental reasons like the need for an heir or having more hands at the farm, because the value of the phenomenal outcome is likely to “swamp” the value of non-phenomenal outcomes. (For detail of her actual argument, see the appendix below.) So the popular press is not entirely wrong in claiming she argues "there is no rational way to decide to have children—or not to have them".

Alas, this pessimistic conclusion rests on premise 2, which is false, especially when it comes to life choices. What motivates the premise is either the thought that what is objectively valuable for us are above all or exclusively positive experiences, or that what we subjectively care about are above all or exclusively positive experiences. Since neither of these claims is true, our at least partial ignorance of what outcomes that involve transformative experiences are like for us doesn’t threaten the possibility of making approximately rational self-interested life choices (which is not to say that it is easy to make them).

The standard way of arguing against the notion that prudential choices are or should be exclusively experience-regarding, as I will say, is by appeal to thought experiments like Nozick’s Experience Machine. As I have emphasized, the relevant comparison is between a qualitatively identical outcome in the Experience Machine and in reality. It is illustrative, I believe, that it is precisely when it comes to outcomes of life choices that the intuition against plugging in is strongest. Would I be indifferent between actually going to see Gravity or eating a nice meal, and having the perfect illusion of doing so? Yes. Would I be indifferent between actually having and interacting with my two children or doing my job, and having the perfect illusion thereof? Certainly not. What matters to me about being with my children and doing my job is neither exclusively nor centrally the quality of associated experiences.

So how do we, and should we, go about making life choices? On Paul’s picture, recall, the way people ordinarily decide whether to have a child is asking themselves how they would feel if they had one, or more broadly what it would be like for them if they had a child. I am, first of all, highly skeptical of whether the empirical claim is true. It doesn’t even remotely match my own experience of making the choice to have children, nor does it reflect what conversations with friends suggest.

But the important thing is what actually makes a difference to the prudential value of the outcome of either having or not having children. Here are some of the non-experiential things you choose when you decide to have a child. You choose to be a father or mother, and potentially a grandfather or grandmother, a link in the chain of generations from the unknown past to the uncertain future. You choose to take on certain obligations and responsibilities towards the child, whatever he or she will be like. You choose to bring into the world and nurture a creature who is for a long time dependent on you. You choose to bind yourself to your partner in a new way: you will always have something distinctively in common, someone who shares some of the unique traits of both of you, both by biological transmission and (typically) by way of the example you give and the way you bring her up. This may be an expression of a deep kind of love. In short, you choose identities, roles, commitments, and relationships. (Including being a childless woman, for example.) These are outcomes that you can know in advance, regardless of how the actual experience transforms or would transform you.

And these outcomes have value for people independently of the associated experiences. Why? That’s not a simple question. I believe that it has to do with the fact that we are not just subjects of experience but also active agents shaping our lives, so that certain exercises of our agency are good for us independently of the experiences they involve. Subjectively, some people simply have preferences for having certain roles, relationships, or activities, regardless of or in addition to what they are like for them. They may feel their lives are wasted or rudderless without them, or take pride in doing them well. When it comes to objective value, there are many competing non-experiential theories. A perfectionist might say that the roles and relationships involved in having children are good for you to the extent that they enable the development and exercise of your essential human capacities. (In that case, you are better of not having children when doing so would hinder such development and exercise.) An objective list theorist would ask which kind of life is likely to involve higher levels of achievement, personal relationships, and self-respect (Fletcher 2013), or whatever is on the list.

My own view is that the non-experiential value of being a parent and a co-parent depends on whether it makes your life more (objectively) meaningful, which in turn is, roughly speaking, a matter of whether it continues your story in the direction of making a lasting positive difference in the world in a way that builds on your past efforts and makes use of your distinctive abilities. On this view, whether it is prudentially rational for you to have children depends centrally on what else you could be doing with respect to realizing some objective value (whether moral, alethic, or aesthetic), as well as what you have done up to now and are able to do. To be sure, it also depends in part on whether children would make you happy, but that is not a paramount value that would “swamp” others, but a relatively minor consideration, unless there is some good reason to think it would make you either extremely happy or unhappy.

So I prefer to say that the self-interested choice of whether to have a child, or go to college, for another example, should rationally be centrally story-regarding. Insofar as I’m abstracting from moral considerations, I should ask myself whether the story of my life is likely to be better if I make one choice rather than the other. This is by no means an easy calculation – nobody says that making even approximately rational life choices is simple. But if it is difficult, it is not because you can’t predict your experiences, but because it’s hard to predict exactly how your relationships and projects are transformed.

So: I reject the conclusion of the argument suggested by Paul’s paper, since what it is like to have a child is not a central prudential consideration when it comes to deciding to have a child. Contrary to Paul, I don’t believe common sense makes this error either, though the issue would need to be settled by proper empirical research. The result is a kind of a dilemma for Paul’s thesis about the implications of transformative experience. On the one hand, when it comes to ordinary choices for which the phenomenal quality of outcomes is paramount, we are in a fairly good position to know what the phenomenal quality will be (for example, I’ll get better food at Café Paradiso than at McDonald’s down the road). On the other hand, when it comes to life choices, the phenomenal quality of outcomes is indeed hard to tell, but it is not among the most important considerations either. We don’t have to set aside our preferences between lives to make a rational choice, since (and as long as) those preferences are above all for relationships, identitities, and activities rather than experiences.


Is Paul committed to the pessimistic conclusion of the argument I claim is suggested by her paper? Perhaps not, but she comes close when she emphasizes the importance of phenomenal quality in making personal choices, and then denies it can be the rational basis when it comes to transformative experiences. For example, she says that “it seems appropriate to frame the decision [of whether to have children] in terms of making a personal choice, one that carefully weighs the value of one’s future experiences” (p. 2), and even more strongly that

not only is the phenomenal outcome what it’s like to have your own child a relevant outcome of your choice, it’s an outcome whose value might swamp the other outcomes. In other words, even if other outcomes are relevant, the value of the phenomenal outcome, when it occurs, might be so positive or so negative that none of the values of the other relevant outcomes matter. (p. 17)

Paul considers the possibility that other outcomes might outweigh the phenomenal ones, but dismisses it with the claim that “What is much more likely is that the value of what it is like to have the child will swamp the other outcomes.” (p. 17n28) So it is clear that she doesn’t just think that one potential basis for making a prudentially rational choice is missing when it comes to transformative experiences, but that the very possibility of such choice is severely threatened, because phenomenal quality is of paramount importance. To be sure, Paul does grant that someone can decide rationally, as long as she “ignore[s] what she personally thinks about whether she wants to have a child” (p. 20), but given what she says about the importance of what it’s like to have a child, I read this as gesturing towards making the choice on the basis of something other than one’s personal preferences or intrinsic interests, such as the kind of considerations that motivated some pre-modern parents, or moral reasons. At the very least, the claim about the phenomenal value of an outcome swamping non-phenomenal values is in severe tension with the claim that it is possible to make a rational choice on the basis of non-phenomenal values.

(Thanks to David Killoren for comments on a draft of this blog.)

29 Replies to “What Mary Can Expect When She’s Expecting

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post, Antti. A quick question about your story-regarding view of the value of these kinds of life-choices. Do you think of the value of the objects of these life-choices as mainly being contextual (and story-developing)? Or do you allow these goods to also be of an intrinsic sort (whereby they have their value for us, at least in part, on account their own nature)?
    Prima facie, the latter view strikes me as more plausible. Surely these goods are not sought only or even mainly because of their impact on our life-stories, but also to a large extent for their own sakes. If so, then it would seem that we should say that if you’re right to say that they enhance our life-stories, making the relevant life-choices can give us two kinds of non-experiential goods (in addition to the experiential goods they might also give us): the intrinsic goods that these objects of certain life-choices are, and the story-enhancing goods that having these goods within our lives provides us with.
    I’d be curious to hear what you think of this way of thinking of these goods.

  2. Great post, Antti!
    I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you or even Paul here, but I’d just like to emphasize a distinction: (i) estimating the value of the experience of having kids, vs. (ii) imagining or experiencing what it’s like to have kids. I think we can do (i) without doing (ii), by relying on observation of others and on others’ testimony. Paul seems to come around to this in the published version (see 6.3, pp. 17-20), although I think she disagreed in the widely circulated draft version, as I remember it. The fact that we can do (i) without doing (ii) means that Premise 3 of the argument suggested by Paul’s paper is false, quite apart from any considerations having to do with the experience-regarding/story-regarding distinction.

  3. Just a quick admin note: because of recent (and apparently ongoing) spam problems, I’ll have to moderate comments before they appear. I’ll be on the move until this evening, so it may take a few hours before your comments are shown here. I’ll respond to Sven, David, and others then as well.

  4. This is a question/thought more for Laurie than for Antti.
    I have not read Laurie’s very interesting paper yet, but I am tempted to ask questions anyway, if that does not seem too presumptuous. I take it her main notion is rationality and I take that to be an evidence-relative assessment.
    One way of thinking of rationality in this sense is that as our info gets poorer, it gets easier to make a rational decision. Think of a case where one has no info at all about which coconut the dollar is under, and if one picks the coconut with the dollar under it, one gets the dollar. Here it would seem rational, or at least not irrational, to pick any of the coconuts. I would have thought most would say picking any coconut is rationally permissible. On one picture that I associate with Raz, options are rationally available until something (such as available info which tells against that option) rules them out. On this picture as our available info gets poorer and poorer, it becomes easier to rationally justify a variety of decisions. A different but related thought is that as one’s info gets poorer and poorer, it becomes rational to rely on quite fallible and poorer sources of info. This latter thought might tell us that if we notice people who are otherwise similar to us tending to enjoy (or not enjoy) having kids, it would be rational to rely on that very very fallible bit of intel given how poor one’s info is.

  5. This discussion is very interesting!
    I think it would be helpful for me to make two immediate comments. First, I do not think that such choices must be “exclusively experience regarding”. Rather, my project is to argue that decision-making involving phenomenal values is (i) often part of our ordinary approach to big decisions and (ii) should be part of our approach to big decisions. What I want to avoid is the move of redefining all of our values as somehow not based on experience. (Relatedly “outcome” in your premise #3, above, refers to a phenomenal or experiential outcome. Other outcomes can be assessed differently.)
    Second, there is a lot of empirical research on the topic of choosing to have a child. For example, Kathryn Edin’s book, Promises I can Keep, is a great study of how poor women choose to have a child (often the pregnancy is unplanned, but they decide to keep their babies, and this is where the relevant choice is made). Edin’s research strongly suggests that Antii is right that their decision often involves stories, but these stories are described in terms of imagining what it will be like once they have the baby, or imagining themselves as mothers, etc. Thus, a dominant feature of their decisions involves the sorts of deliberations I had in mind. For example, Edin says “The key to the mystery … lies in what they hope their children will do for them” and “Thoughts of children—when to have them, who with, what they’ll be like—often preoccupy the hopes and dreams…” Edin also talks about how these parents experience the birth of the child as a kind of “magical moment” where many new preferences (some lasting, some not) are formed.

  6. Antti
    I know you are very busy but just one quick question about your positive view. I take it we need to distinguish between what outcomes have non-experiential value for a person and how the person is to make choices in a rational way – what are the procedures of rational reflection.
    I just wanted to ask in what way narratives are relevant for these two considerations. So, assume that some outcome continues my story “in the direction of making a lasting positive difference in the world in a way that builds on your past efforts and makes use of your distinctive abilities”.
    Does prudential value require that there could be a narrative to which the outcome could be included in this way? Or, does it require that I have a narrative already in my mind to which I can connect the outcomes.
    Similarly, what is the relation between rational decision-making and narratives? I order to make a rational choice, do I have to be able to connect the outcome of my choice to a pre-existing narrative I have in mind?
    The reason I ask this is that as you know there are in fact people like Galen Strawson who strongly see themselves as non-narrativists. These individuals do not have story to tell about their lives and they don’t understand themselves in terms of a narrative (for one reason because they see their lives as distinct episodes). I worry that you are pushed to say things like that people like this cannot make rational life-choices, or even more worryingly their lives lack meaning or prudential value. Of course, much of this is avoided if the agent’s themselves do not need to connect the outcomes to narratives (there only needs to be the possibility…). Or, are people like Galen just living in false consciousness?

  7. Cool topic and post!
    I wonder what you think of this idea: transformative phenomenal experiences (and, e.g., the emotional episodes they trigger) often lead people to reassess their *overall* values, projects, etc. (and how they are faring relative to those)
    Some people, for example, think that job success is less important after they have kids than they did before. I bet a lot of people also change their views (insofar as they have them) about what human capacities are essential and what it would take to best realize them after they have kids.
    These points suggest that while phenomenal experience may not itself be a dominant source of prudential value, it may have an immense effect on prudential outcomes because it affects people’s larger evaluative outlook and commitments — things that do seem to loom large when it comes to assessing meaning and welfare.

  8. Okay, one toddler down, one baby in mother’s arms, so I can start replying to at least some of the comments.
    Sven: That’s an interesting suggestion. It makes me think that there’s an analogue to the ‘paradox’ of hedonism when it comes to narrative value: if you aim at making your story good, you’re bound to fail, since the good-making features are projects and relationships that you get involved in for non-instrumental reasons. (I hope that makes sense.) So if you get involved in cancer research because finding a cure for cancer would make your life story good and not because you want to heal the world, even success will count for less.
    Still, it is my official view that achievements and relationships are non-experentially good for you because and to the extent that they contribute to the meaningfulness of your life. So, I think that if you find the cure for cancer and give it away, you’ve done something intrinsically valuable, but it’s not intrinsically *prudentially* valuable. What’s prudentially valuable is that you’ve successfully exercised your agency and capacities in pursuit of an objectively worthwhile goal.
    Well, the baby has now migrated to my arms, so I better shut up and return to everyone’s great comments tomorrow morning.

  9. Dave, thanks for the question about rationality. I want to say that the question here is whether we can, in principle, make a rational choice to have a child. *If* I choose based on what I think it will be like to have a child, I am not choosing rationally, and I cannot choose (that way) rationally. That’s because (a) before I have my first child, I can’t assign a phenomenal value to what it will be like for me to have a child and (b) the stakes are high, so the range of possible phenomenal values extends from the very negative to the very positive. Compare: you have to decide whether to pay $10,000 to play the lottery. But you don’t know what the value of the prize is (nor do you know the probability of winning). I’d say it’s not rational to pay to play.
    So on the conception of rational choosing I’m thinking of, it isn’t easier to make a rational choice just because you are choosing under conditions of epistemic impoverishment. My thought is that it can’t be more rational to choose to play a lottery game when you don’t know much about how it works than to choose to play when you do know how it works.
    My conclusion (in my forthcoming book, Transformative Experience, OUP) is that we should keep a central role for phenomenal values in our decisions involving transformative experiences, but change which ones we are relying on when we decide. For example, we revise “choosing to have a child because it will be like X for me” to choosing to have a child to find out what it is like to be a parent (which is perhaps the same as choosing to have a life experience as a parent). And we should make choosing to NOT have a child into a choice to decide to not find out what it is like to be a parent (which is perhaps the same as choosing to have a life experience as a non-parent). We choose change, or we choose the status quo, but we don’t choose because we know what it will be like.

  10. Thanks for this, Antti. You have a lot of other comments to get to, but here’s a quick response. It seems to me that your reply fits better with examples such as the cancer-research case than with the sorts of life-choices you discuss in your original post. The main examples above were: getting a certain kind of education, marrying, and having children. It seems to me that those can quite plausibly be thought of as intrinsic goods of the prudential kind, in addition to also making one’s story better. But in the case of the cancer cure-research, the comment you make above seems spot on.
    So it seems, then, that depending on what goods are in question, sometimes they will be both non-experiential intrinsic goods and also story-enhancing goods, whereas sometimes – such as in the case of the cancer-research – they are not really intrinsic prudential goods, but having them in your life improves your story. This, of course, is not so much an argument as simply a report of an intuition about these cases (albeit one that I suspect you might share).
    Like I said, you have many other great comments above that you’ll want to get to. But if you were planning on also doing some follow-ups on any responses to your replies, I would of course be interested in hearing what you think about my response.

  11. David: I struggle to understand that section of the paper. In the section, Paul (L.A? Laurie?) discusses the possibility of estimating the utility out of the outcome of having a child on the basis of science of subjective well-being. That is in fact the kind of decision procedure that is recommended by Daniel Gilbert, a well-known sceptic about “affective forecasting”. For example, having discussed some studies, he says that “This trio of studies suggests that when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.” (Gilbert 2006, 251). If this works in the case of having children, what you say seems right, even if the value of the outcome hangs on phenomenology. But Laurie’s take is that if we look to statistical evidence, we have to ignore our own feelings and preferences (p. 19). That part I don’t get. It seems that using this method, what we do is ignore our imaginative projections of what an outcome would be like, because they are likely to be misleading. We still keep our preferences. But perhaps I’m just missing something.

  12. The previous reply was to David K, not David S – I’ll let Laurie respond to that if she wants to. She does say a bit about alternative rational decision procedures in Section 6.2 of the published paper.
    Laurie: thanks for participating in the discussion! I think our main disagreement comes to point ii, the role that phenomenal outcomes should play in life choices. On my view, even if we *knew* what it will be like to be a college graduate vs. an uneducated surfer (to vary the example), we shouldn’t give it much weight in making the choice, unless one involved constant misery. (Typically, the miserable outcomes are bad on other criteria, too.) Again, that’s because there is more to prudential value than the quality of our experience. You can waste your life leading a fairly comfortable existence.
    Edin’s book sounds interesting, but I find your quotes somewhat ambiguous. For example, if women think about “what their children will do for them”, it’s not obvious that they are thinking about what their experience with children will be like. They might think of how their activities and relationships are affected – in other words, non-experential features.

  13. (The spam filter is struggling – Laurie’s second comment was marked as spam, so I almost missed it altogether. Fortunately, my latest comment also went to the spam folder, so I eventually found both…)
    Jussi: Let me start by saying that accepting the argument I make in the post doesn’t require accepting my particular view of prudential value – which is great, because I don’t think anyone else does!
    In any case, I talk more about the issues you ask about in the Arizona paper I should be writing right now. I emphasize that it is strictly speaking the narratable shape of a life that matters, not a story or narrative that one might tell (perhaps oneself) about the life. The ingredients of narratable shape are goal-related events (goal-adoptings, positive or negative contributions to goals, and goal-achievements). So as long as you have aims and plans that go beyond instinctive reactions to your environment, your life has a narratable shape (colloquially speaking, you have a story). What I’m working on is proposing criteria for prudential (rather than, say, aesthetic) evaluation of such life stories. They don’t require you yourself to think in such terms – though some psychologists, such as Dan McAdams, do claim that people have a ‘personal story’ of themselves that informs their identity, choices, and well-being.
    Now, it is entirely fair to ask how this conception of prudential value relates to rational choice, since that’s how I frame the issue in the post. At the same time, this isn’t something I’ve worked out yet. I’m a little scared that I may be driven into a Vellemanish position. Let me try out something here.
    On a Paul-like conception of rationality, to make a rational choice, you need informed estimates of the value of different outcomes and their probability given options – not just any way of forming preferences and probability judgments will do. How to go about forming rational preferences depends on what is actually valuable. We’re focusing on prudential choice, so let’s ignore other considerations. I say what’s good for you is leading a meaningful and happy life, where the former is, roughly, a matter of pursuing objectively valuable goals in a way that builds on your past pursuits and makes use of your abilities. Not all choices will make a difference to this dimension of prudential value, but choices of high-level projects (in the pursuit of which you will undertake other activities) will. So what you’ll have to ask yourself when you’re deciding whether to go to college, for example, is how likely it is that it will in the long run best promote your activities realizing some objective value (where I’m quite liberal about what counts as objectively valuable and as realization), best build on your past projects and existing commitments, and call for the full exercise of your abilities and potential. That’s the kind of information you’ll need to form rational preferences and make rational choices. (You’ll also need to estimate you it will influence your affective condition.)
    Whatever choice you make, you will, de facto, choose to shape your story one way rather than another. But this needn’t, and probably shouldn’t, be at the forefront of your deliberation. Perhaps (and this is the Vellemanish bit), concern for leading a life you can be proud of and be fittingly fulfilled by is a background motive that guides such deliberation; perhaps without such a motive your life choices won’t be rational, since it will be only by accident that you end up making them on the basis of the right kind of consideration.

  14. Hi
    thanks Antti! I’ll look forward to that Arizona paper, and good luck in Arizona: it’s wonderful in January and the conference is great too (wish I was going, but I’m off to good old Finland). Understanding prudential value in terms of narratable shape seems fine to me, even if I worry that this is so weak that no explanatory power is left.
    Of the relation to rational choice, I do find your view more appealing. One data for rational choices (or better, rational decision making procedures) seems to be that we at least fairly often make rational choices. If making such choices requires going through expected utility calculus then this wouldn’t be the case. There’s a bit of a worry about this when you give three things to think about in the going to college case, but at least your view seems more faithful to how rational agents often deliberate.

  15. I am not sure Laurie’s example (in response to Dave’s question) is a clean one. It is hard not to import into the example some assumptions about lotteries. In typical lotteries, the probability of winning varies from low to very low, and lottery prizes are typically either money or things that you can buy or sell for money. Under such conditions, there are very few, if any, lotteries that I would be willing to pay $10,000 to play (what x needs to be, so that I am willing to pay $10,000 to give me a 1 in 100 chance of winning x dollars?). But suppose God will give us a prize that we don’t know what it is (it could be a conference mug, but it could also be a significantly better life for us and all our friends and folks), and we really don’t know how likely we are to win (it could be a chance in a million, but it also could be virtually certain). Then I am less sure that it is not rational to pay to play.

  16. Sergio, in the sorts of cases that provide a cleaner analogy to the situation I’m interested in, the game outcomes are finitely valued and range from high negative values to high positive values. It’s free to play, but if you get a negative outcome, you pay. I don’t think it is more rational to play when we know less about the probability distribution of the outcomes than when we know more about it.
    Responding more directly to David K’s point, I deny that a person can learn (the relevant features of) what it is like to have a child without having one, just like I cannot learn what it is like to see red merely from the descriptions of others.

  17. A few more (belated) replies.
    First, Brad: I think you’re right that new and unpredictable experiences can change preferences, values, and commitments in unpredictable ways, and that the latter are relevant to welfare. But I don’t know what to think of the relevance of future preferences (etc.) to rational choice. After all, they’re not your preferences when you make the choice, and if you make another choice, you’ll have different future preferences. To take a not-so-implausible example, it may well be that if you choose to have a child, you come to prefer life with children, and if you choose not to have a child, you come to prefer life without children. (If grass is greener on the other side, it could go the opposite way!) It seems you can’t grant authority to potential future preferences as such in rational decision-making.
    What you can do, to be sure, is to assess the value of such preferences in the light of your current values and commitments – you might value the environment, and think that you’ll develop environment-friendly preferences if you move to an environmentalist collective. But then you’re looking at future preferences from the outside, so to speak, as possible facts about yourself.

  18. Sven: I do find what you say intuitively appealing. And I think that part of the appeal has to do with the implausibility of directly aiming at a good story when making choices. (I actually talked about “primarily tacitly story-regarding choices” in the original draft of the post, but then dropped the ‘tacitly’ bit for stylistic reasons.)
    But I do want to stick to my guns here. Let me start with what I said to Jussi’s related concern. I think it is a central aspect of good exercises of agency that they realize or successfully respond to some objective (non-prudential) value. So I think that if getting a college education is good for you, it is in an important part because it involves or results in activities that realize some value. Assuming that knowledge is valuable for its own sake, and that you acquire some important knowledge (understanding?) through education, the activity of studying realizes that value. (I don’t know how important this is; I don’t really understand the intrinsic value of knowledge or understanding.) Education will also (hopefully) develop your potential so that you can participate in other valuable activities, and (hopefully) improve your ability to tell which activities are valuable. If, on the other hand, college education doesn’t improve your understanding, skills, or judgment, its only value lies in the hard-to-predict experience involved. If that were the only good thing about education, I wouldn’t want my children to go to college.
    The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for marrying. I say in another paper that we shouldn’t think of personal relationships as something we stand in or have, but as something we live or do. Beyond experience, they are only good for us insofar as they involve activities that constitute a successful response to some objective value. And responding to value is good for us because it contributes to a prudentially good life story, unlike exercises of agency that fail to do so (such as counting blades of grass or watching Seinfeld reruns). To be sure, there’s a lot more that needs to be said in favour of this last point, in particular.

  19. LA Paul writes:
    “Responding more directly to David K’s point, I deny that a person can learn (the relevant features of) what it is like to have a child without having one, just like I cannot learn what it is like to see red merely from the descriptions of others.”
    Right. I don’t disagree with you on *that* point. My point, though, is that a person can estimate the phenomenal value (value of the experience of) having a child, without learning (the relevant features of) what it is like to have a child. You seem to agree to this in 6.3, or did I misread you?

  20. Many thanks for this second reply, Antti. I find what you are saying very compelling. And it reminds me of Susan Wolf’s view, which I also find compelling (so you are certainly in good company). I do have some lingering doubts, and also think it would be interesting to hear more about how you think about the objectivity of the values involved. But these are issues we could also save for some other occasion.

  21. David K.,
    Yes. I was just worried about what (I thought) you thought that implied. We can use testimony to find out how people who have had children responded to that experience. The trouble is that this won’t help us, when deciding to have a first child, to make the decision in the way that we want to. For a certain class of decisions (like this one), we normally prefer to make them first personally, or at least, we want our first personal, phenomenal preferences to play an important role when we make these decisions. (Of course, not all decisions are made this way, and rightly so.)
    We don’t have the sort of information we’d need to have to be able to take the empirical facts about how people respond to having a child and employ them to make an informed decision based on our first personal phenomenology. This is because we don’t know where we are located in the data, subjectively speaking. (This is related to the problem of preference change that occurs when you have a child. The first problem involves the fact that you are choosing to have an experience that likely changes your preferences about the experience. The second problem is that you don’t know how it will change your preferences about the experience. –Also, we might be able to fix the reference class problem with a lot more empirical work, but we don’t have what we’d need right now. And most people deciding now need to know that information now, not 20 years from now.)

  22. I am getting a bit lost. I am not sure what the relevance of the claims about lotteries is supposed to be. Suppose it was true that we ought not pay good money for a lottery when our info is very limited but we know the stakes are high, as Rawls claimed. How is that related to the thought that the decision about whether to have kids or not cannot be made rationally? I was thinking the idea was that one has little info about what it is like to have kids, and in having kids the stakes are clearly high, so the conclusion would be that it is rational to not have kids. But that conclusion does not seem to be the wanted conclusion.
    I was wondering if part of Laurie’s point could be made by distinguishing between a rational choice and a rational decision. A rational choice in this sense is a choice for an option that is not rationally ruled out. A rational choice is just the choice of an option that is not rationally ruled out, regardless of one’s decision procedure in reaching that choice. A rational decision would be a rational choice plus the arriving at that choice in an approved manner. With that distinction in hand, I see Laurie not claiming that having a child cannot be a rational choice, but that the decision to have a child on the grounds of views concerning what it will be like to have one (when the decider has not had kids before) cannot be a rational decision. But, this view would continue, if one thinks to oneself, “I don’t know what it would be like to have a kid, but I want to know” or “I don’t know what it would be like to have a kid, but I have got to do something and so I will have a kid” these grounds for having a child would not be claimed to be necessarily irrational decisions. In other words, it is a kind of mistake to make decisions on what it would be like grounds when we have very poor evidence about what it would be like.

  23. L. A.,
    Drats, it’s just as I suspected. We (mostly) agree. 🙂
    I suppose I’m inclined to think that we have a little more usable empirical information than you seem to think, but I don’t have a careful argument against your view. In my own case, I want to become a father someday mainly because my anecdotal impression has been that people like me in relevant respects tend to enjoy and benefit from parenthood (in both experience-regarding and story-regarding respects), especially when they become parents in the absence of extreme financial hardship, personal crisis, etc. Anecdotal data is, of course, a kind of empirical data; and when the serious science is nascent, I think we can often make the best (most rational) decisions on the basis of anecdotes.

  24. Dave S., I like your reconstruction about arriving at the decision in an approved manner very much. I would just add that I also think that before one has a child, one has little info about what one would be missing if one doesn’t have a child (so although you know what it is like to go on as before, you are still epistemically impoverished because you don’t know what the ruled-out option is like). I don’t think you were saying otherwise, but I like to make both sides of the point clear in the discussion.
    David K., you can see my view as levying a challenge to the very natural and intuitively appealing approach you describe. It’s worth adding that the data collected by social scientists suggests that most parents score worse on standard measures of life satisfaction than comparable nonparents, even while the parents testify to their personal satisfaction with their choice. This raises questions about how much we should rely on the simple testimony of friends and relatives.

  25. In the original post, I granted Laurie’s claim that we can’t rationally estimate the phenomenal value of having a child before we have one, and then argued that it’s not very important, since there’s other, in context more important prudential values on the basis of which we can potentially make a rational choice.
    Now, there’s one potential objection I didn’t discuss, but which comes up in the back-and-forth between Laurie and the Davids. I don’t deny that extreme phenomenal values can outweigh non-phenomenal values. If having a child makes you utterly miserable, you may be worse off, even if as a result your relationship to your partner is deepened.
    This is where I think social scientific evidence is potentially important. Even if it suggests that parents have, on average, lower life-satisfaction (on which more in a moment), it doesn’t support believing either that you’ll be much happier or unhappier with a child. Indeed, in the happiness literature, it is common to talk about people having a set point of happiness, such that life events tend to cause only temporary departures from the level determined by your long-lasting characteristics. If this is true, it supports my contention that it would be foolish to make the decision to have a child on experience-regarding grounds – it’s unlikely to make a dramatic difference anyway.
    What is more, some specific studies suggest that outcomes that you might think involve miserable experience don’t. For example, there’s evidence that parents of children with Down’s Syndrome actually have higher life satisfaction than parents of typical children.
    Finally, although there’s a popular notion that having children lowers happiness levels, the claim is unlikely to stand up to scrutiny. As readers of Dan Haybron’s brilliant work know, happiness is best understood as a multidimensional emotional or affective condition rather than pleasure or life satisfaction judgment. Recent studies have found that parents report more positive emotion and felt meaning in their lives, and that parenting activities are among the most rewarding. Once we leave behind the ‘smiley-face’ conception of happiness, the data just look different. The issue is far from settled.
    But again, this is not a big deal: when you’re making life choices, you rationally should think of which worthwhile activities and relationships are the best way forward for who you’ve become, and let your experience sort itself out.

  26. Antti (and everyone else contributing), thanks for these thoughtful comments. One thing I want to mention, given what you say about happiness, is that I distinguish between the wide range of phenomenal outcomes and their associated values and happiness levels (or pleasure and pain). In other words, my emphasis on phenomenal values is not an emphasis on happiness versus unhappiness, or pleasure versus pain. The idea is, instead, that different experiential outcomes have different phenomenal values that are not reducible to anything else.

  27. Thanks for participating, Laurie (and everyone else)! The last comment is a useful and intriguing clarification. The idea that certain experiences have value beyond their (broadly speaking) hedonic quality seems quite novel, and I look forward to reading more about it.
    (My apologies again to all for the snail’s pace of this discussion – this turned out to be a week during which I had hardly any time for work, and frequent Internet outages to boot.)

  28. This is a fascinating issue and discussion. I’m not sure exactly how, but I suspect that some of the arguments in Sam Scheffler’s arguments in his excellent new book *Death and the Afterlife* are relevant, presumably to strengthen some of Antti’s arguments.

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