The Open Society as the Enemy Why Transformative Choice is the Problem for Our Time

The interaction of our embodied selves with the world creates cognitive structures that instantiate preferences, values, dispositions, and skills. Much of this requires neither thought nor justification. One can choose to attach reasons to liking steak more than pork, or blackjack more than poker, but the exercise is post-hoc and unnecessary. This isn’t to say that reasons might not exist. Even valid reasons. But those reasons will be referents to other preferences. At no level will there ever be an objective reason why one preference is better than another except in cases where the terminating factor is a genetic pre-disposition. And while such a termination is undeniably objective, such a justification need not be compelling to anyone else – even an identical twin.

On the other hand, both the world and our own reflection often give us reason to wish that many of our cognitive structures were different than they are. We may wish that our preference for sugared foods or unreliable partners were lessened. Perhaps it would be nice if we were less prone to distraction or less intimidated by other people’s opinions. Equally, we might hope to be better musicians, computer programmers or tennis players. We might even wish to have a less cynical or more cheerful outlook. Preferences, values, skills, and dispositions are all just cognitive structures. They are all potentially changed by experience. Some may be harder to shape than others, all may be constrained by genetic or cultural boundaries.

Nobody doubts that shaping the cognitive structures we call “skills” requires decision, attention, and commitment. It may not take everyone 10,000 hours to master a complex skill and some people may never master a skill no matter how many hours they devote, but complex cognitive structures take investments of time and tailored experience to create.

There is no reason to think that the same is not true for every kind of cognitive structure. The challenge is that while our culture has created vast superstructures to help build marketable skills, there is almost no tailored training or development for any other cognitive capability.

Yet we have good reason to care about many of these capabilities. Unlike preferences about chocolate vs. strawberry or Hip-hop versus Rock, many preferences, skills, values, and dispositions are not arbitrary or a matter of indifference. They define who we are and just as we cannot help valuing some people more than others, we cannot help valuing some versions of our self more than others. It is impossible to be a relativist with respect to people. 

We have, too, reasons for caring driven by our broader preference sets. Within every human preference set are conflicting desires. The preference for chocolate over strawberry is unlikely to create preference set conflicts, but the desire for sugary foods surely may. A desire to please others will often conflict with a desire to have our own way or be a certain kind of person. The desire to be relaxed and lazy will conflict with the desire to be a better pianist. The desire to cheerful may get short shrift from a desire to vent. In the vast and complex structures of our brain there is no reason for consistency to obtain. But failures of consistency create conflicts that can be painful or even fatal and are deleterious to overall preference satisfaction.

If it were not possible to change cognitive dispositions, this wouldn’t matter. But by choosing experiences, we influence who be become. We have the motive, the means, and the opportunity to change who we are. This means there are two classes of decision-making in life: optimization decisions that treat who we are as a given, and transformational choices that treat who we are as an outcome. The most important thing to understand about transformational choices (aside from the fact that such choices exist) is that for a decision-maker, they don’t work the same way as traditional preference optimization.

As we’ve seen, transformational choices (I’ll also call them self-altering decisions) present a very different kind of problem than preference optimization. To make them, we must think about the preferences, values, and dispositions we have – not just optimize against them. As Paul convincingly argues, the standard model of rational choice won’t help. It can’t handle decisions about preference change.

Someone with a Utilitarian bent might think a person should try to evaluate which choice will increase one’s overall opportunity for preference satisfaction (treating our cognitive structure the way a business might its capital investment). This is wrong in every respect.

Suppose that by my existing preference set, getting a job in a factory will maximize my utility compared to becoming a soldier. But going into the army will change my preference set. And once I have that new preference set, how can I know whether being in the army or being a factory worker will be better? Not only is my preference set different as I change, but the grounds by which I measure the size and potential of a preference set can change too. For the soldier I become, the life of a factory worker might have smaller horizons. For the factory worker I become, it could be the life of a soldier that has worse preference satisfaction. There is no conceivable answer about which is right. And what should I do if I decided that as a soldier, I’d be happier as a factory worker and as a factory worker I’d be happier as a soldier?

It’s impossible (and meaningless) to evaluate preference sets in terms of their ability to be satisfied. Nor can we simply treat preferences about ourselves as givens in the way we might a preference for chocolate. Instead, we need a way to plausibly reflect on and choose versions of our self.

That means there’s a gap between our only real model of decision-making (preference optimization based on maximizing expected outcomes) and what we need to make decisions designed to change ourselves. Enlisting in the army or joining the Peace Corps isn’t like choosing which restaurant to go to or what flavor of ice cream to buy or even what kind of car to lease. We cannot approach transformational choice by creating checklists of what we like and weighting each preference and then summing them up to get a total. We can’t choose a life the way we might an accounting program. This gap in our decision-making is worrisome since transformative choices are big and important. Decisions that change who you are matter.

I want to pause here for second. It is easy enough to let the flow of an argument carry you, unresisting but unchanging, along its path. Sometimes, reading popularized accounts of modern physics, I find myself nodding along in apparent understanding only to realize that had an experiment reached an exactly opposite result I would have been equally unsurprised. When it comes to quantum mechanics, only a few experts have real understanding; that isn’t the case here. We regularly – even without realizing it – make decisions about what kind of person we will become. The opportunity and the necessity for making these decisions is real. It isn’t confined to a book. But take a minute to remember how long it has been since you thought seriously about how choosing an experience might change you for better or worse. It’s not something most of us do very often.

That’s a terrible mistake since preference optimization is not all there is to decision-making. Who you are is not a given.

Which leaves us with the deep and troubling question central to TW2BR – how can we think intelligently about transformational choice and make good transformational choices? What does making a good decision even mean?

Those are questions that matter.

They matter not just because it would be nice to have a good theory of transformational choice. Make no mistake, we need a good theory. We are all reasonably expert in the basics of preference optimization. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve on getting what we want, but identifying and helping rectify common and systemic failures of practical reason is the focus and domain of economics and social psychology. Choosing an experience to change who you are is simply not part of what those disciplines can help with. Self-altering decisions matter more than almost any optimization decision, are fundamental to shaping a life, yet are poorly understood. So yes, it would be nice to have a good theory about how to make them.

But even that’s only a small part of the story.

The main reason it matters is a function of our time, place and culture. For most of history, a person could get by without thinking much about this kind of thing. We fall into many of our values based on the interpretations that local culture gives to biology and genetics. While local cultures have never been ideal, they were often tolerably benign. Without reflection, decision and effort, a person might not have gotten a great set of values and preferences, but chances are that they wouldn’t get a disastrous set either.

For most of human history the range of choices and options people had were limited. Born into farming life in a village, with your spouse chosen for you, and your culture wrapped in forms and ritual as tightly around you as a swaddled baby, your journey was (surprisingly!) not without important choices. Yet with so much structure and so little freedom, living an okay kind of life was possible without much transformational choice.

That’s not the world we live in. It is the nature of our civilization to make this problem of experience selection and preference sets salient and formidable.

We live in a society that feels remarkably unconstrained. You can be almost anything. Our society supports every sort of profession and every sort of interest. There are people who spend their lives playing online poker. There are travel models. Craft cheese makers. Quantum physicists. Drug dealers. Insurance salesmen. Triathletes. Professional video-gamers. Old musical instrument experts. There a billion potential role models and almost as many life niches.

But having choices is not the same thing as lacking constraints. Our society is hyper-competitive, determinedly materialistic, and frequently overwhelming. Sure, anyone can be a travel model. Provided they happen to be young and strikingly beautiful as well as skilled in the outdoors and capable of a certain sort of congenial patter. Which means, of course, that almost no one can be a travel model. And the world of online poker is available to anyone with a little money. But unless you are remarkably skilled at it, your little money will soon be somebody else’s. And while we rightly pride ourselves on the choice our culture affords, we sometimes neglect to consider the kinds of lives it gives up.

It’s fashionable to sneer at the great engine of modern culture and the prosperity it’s created. As if providing material comfort, deep scientific knowledge, health, longer life, and exciting and enriching art and technology are little recompense for the shit we have to put up with.

But shit there undeniably is. Shit jobs. Grinding underpaid, gig-work clothed in self-help finery. Hyper-competitive credential competitions that begin at the age of 4 and never really end. Entertainment providing mindless orgies of blood, sex, and pre-packaged titillation as healthy for the mind as a Caramel Frappuccino for the body – and often as hard to resist. Endless selling. Selling of everything and anything. From long life to self-help to beauty to wokeness, from sex and chocolate to charitable giving and fine art.

You can buy anything in our society except a good life.

As Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now says of Vietnam: “Oh man, the bullshit piled up so fast, you needed wings to stay above it.”

We don’t have wings. And it turns out that the open society is a dangerous place to become a human. There are thousands, millions, maybe billions of people anxious to tell you what to value, how to live your life, what pleasures to indulge in, and, implicitly or explicitly, what sort of person to be. All in service of selling you something.

Start with the basic biologic desire for food. We need it. We want it. And our society has created a vast infrastructure of preference creation and satisfaction that spans everything from artists like Thomas Keller to purveyors of food barely more edible than the cardboard it comes in. Is it any wonder that 40% of adults in the U.S. are obese? But that’s just the beginning of the problem. Because while our culture is massively geared toward creating obesity, it is equally disdainful of it. So exercise is a 32 billion dollar industry. Roughly 15% of the people in the United States are actively trying to lose weight in any given year. And the industry catering to that weight loss is worth 72 billion dollars. That means that people in our society spend about 10—15% of the total spent on food consumption trying to limit the effects of…food consumption.

Several of the most important women in my life have struggled with eating disorders. This is not statistically surprising. Our culture provides constant reinforcement not only of a highly stylized body image, but of the idea that it’s good to eat healthy and reject fat and sugar. And every time that message is positively reinforced, it gets easier and easier to reject food. So, while most people struggle terribly to keep from getting fat and diabetic (this is me), another group of people are gradually trained to starve themselves. This is the ultimate triumph of culture over evolutionary biology. We have discovered how to get people to starve themselves amidst not just plenty but the most enticing array of food and tastes imaginable.

Take any human need and we’ve created markets to exploit it. And, of course, markets to fight that exploitation. Markets to fix the problems created when we go too far in filling the need or in fighting it. Even markets to explain to us why it’s good or bad to do so. We have restaurants and diet clinics, fast food and slow food, personal chefs and frozen food aisles, cookbooks, and diet books, 7-11s and Pelotons, video games and triathlons, Krispy Kreme’s and Diabetic Clinics, online communities, and self-help books.

“Life is pain,” says Westley in The Princess Bride, “and anyone who says differently is selling you something.” I’m not sure life is pain, but I am sure that most people are selling you something.

The sellers don’t care about your life.  They are quite happy to take advantage of the flaws in your thinking, the desires you have a hard time controlling, and the needs you expose to the world to enrich their own lives even as billions of others are doing the same to them. This is not a zero-sum game. There are, literally, no winners. In a society of consumers, everyone is a salesperson and everyone is a sucker.

For people who find the endless pursuit of status and stuff demoralizing or repugnant or just plain scary, the idea of changing the system has a profound appeal. Good on you. Modern culture is often scary and demoralizing and repugnant. Usually, though, this desire for change translates into the desire for a different political and economic system. 

But all modern history (and literally every interaction we have with government in any country) strongly suggests that the answer to this problem is not a political “ism”. We do not make better people by grinding the choice out of society and replacing religion with some prim, dour, liberal bureaucrat who “knows” exactly who and what everyone should be and who – in turn – is utterly lacking in any notion of a good life. If we don’t want to be governed by philosopher kings, we certainly don’t want to be ruled by Bureauocrates. Modern history has repeatedly shown that it is easy to give up all the benefits of a free society and solve none of the problems.

Worse, we have created another kind of market specially designed to take advantage of people who aren’t happy or content with material plenty. For these people, we have created a vast ideological marketplace fueled by the same incentives and frictionless marketing that drive our economic markets. It’s called democracy and it is not a solution. It’s the same problem all over again.

The market of ideas in our political economy is an exact corollary to the market for goods. It is filled, stuffed, overflowing with options to appeal to any taste, age, race, demographic or level-of-education. There are offerings tailored for the agrarian redneck and offerings just as micro-targeted for the earnest Stanford educated SF hipster. And if you think any of these off-the-shelf political ideologies is somehow better, deeper, or more interesting than another you are delusional. They are all the intellectual equivalent of cotton-candy. Spun out of air and sugar and colored red or blue to suit your taste. Political ideology today is nothing more than the selling of cheap, convenient ideas to fulfill the need be something more than consumers. Not only is it a sham, it’s a bad one. In the world of material goods, we get legitimately great products. Our Tesla’s and Apple Watches and French Laundry dinners are fine craft. There is no mass market equivalent in our political economy. In the world of political ideas, it’s all two-buck chuck.

In short, you don’t live in a swaddling agrarian culture that defines twenty ways to live a life. Such a world is both a safe haven and a profound waste. Our world confronts us with an endless series of demands. It entreats us with a luxuriant buffet of exotic and enticing products. It seduces us with all the things that biology and evolution and culture have caused us to desire. Our world is baffling, thrilling, befuddling, and alluring.

That’s why there has never been a more dangerous society in which to ignore transformational choice. When you have a billion people competing to sell you something, there is nothing more dangerous than NOT deciding for yourself who to be. Because if you don’t choose, someone else is doing it for you.

We live in a richer, more exciting, profoundly more interesting, and better world than has surrounded most people throughout history, but it is a much harder world in which to live a good life.

So yes, transformational choices have always existed. And yes, they are particularly salient to our times and to us. We do need to think about transformational choice. And learning how to do that thinking (as opposed to the thinking itself) is what TW2BR is all about