A central concern for TW2BR is the impact of transformative choice on aspects of philosophy beyond rational choice and decision theory. Life is an endless series of decisions. For centuries, philosophers and economists theorized that we make these decisions in a straightforward and rational manner. We have preferences. We like or value some things more than others. And when we make choices, we pick the alternative that will deliver the best outcome based on our preferences. The outcome, in the language of economics, that maximizes preference satisfaction. Since this model of rational choice is preference neutral, it can be used for any type of decision-making. Our values may be altruistic or honor focused, hedonistic or duty-based. Whatever we value, it makes sense to optimize that value.

This is the way we’ve all been taught to make decisions, especially big, complex life decisions. Create a checklist. Weight the value of the various outcomes. Assess risk. Then choose whatever will likely result in the best outcome for you.

Yet particularly for those big life decisions, it’s wrong. Not wrong in the “people aren’t rational” way, wrong in that it isn’t a coherent notion of rational choice. When we choose big life experiences, those experiences will change us: who we are, how we think, and most importantly, what we value. That’s a critical problem for a decision-making framework focused on optimizing our preferences. How can you choose which outcomes will deliver what you like the best, when what you like the best will change based on your choice?

Decisions whose outcomes involve significant personal change are called “transformative choices”; they form a distinct set of cases that cannot be handled by our existing model of rational choice. Enlistment. Choosing a college. Having a child. These experiences will fundamentally change who you are and what you value. If we can change what we value, then what we choose can shape who we are. That’s what makes these choices the most important decisions we ever face.

For a detailed examination of this issue, read “Mind the Gap” which provides an overview of L.A. Paul’s work on transformative experience and some exploration of its immediate ramifications.

Transformative experience is a huge challenge to utilitarian ways of thinking. In this article, those challenges are explored from the perspective of a personal ethics. But while many philosophers take utilitarian thinking seriously when it comes to personal ethics, very few non-philosophers do. You don’t run into many utilitarians in the broader world. On the other hand, a lot of people, including a lot of people thinking about and shaping public policy work very much in the utilitarian framework. And while the two are obviously related, utilitarianism as a political philosophy has less of a jump to make from the individual preference set to a group of preferences since political questions[1] will necessarily involve a group – and usually a group of essential equals (citizens).

In the public realm, the utilitarian claim is that the best public policy is to optimize the total utility of all citizens. To see how this might work, consider a town trying to decide whether to build a pool or a tennis court. A utilitarian would argue that whichever facility provides the highest satisfaction is the better choice. Note that while voting might serve as a proxy for preferences, the utilitarian view is not majoritarian and isn’t committed to the idea that a vote is always or even often a reasonable proxy for utility. It might be that while a community would VOTE for the pool, the tennis court would deliver more utility. This could be measurable in many ways. Survey research could test people’s enthusiasm for each and explore their likely usage. Or statistics about usage might be collected from similar towns that have built one or the other. Alternatively, one might imagine some procedure where citizens divide their vote across multiple public projects and get to designate the weight they would attach to each vote. The point is that for the utilitarian the best public policy is about optimization not majoritarian or egalitarian decisioning.

On the other hand, utilitarian public policy is fundamentally egalitarian in that everyone’s preference satisfaction is equal and there are never grounds for a claim that your preferences/values are more important or better than anyone else’s.

In cases involving the allocation of public goods (like our pool/tennis court), utilitarian public policy seems convincing. It isn’t easy to see what grounds a decision-maker might have for thinking that a pool is better or worse than a tennis court from any perspective except what give people the most benefit based on their actual preferences. It’s also nice that utilitarianism provides a basic justification for democratic voting as a proxy for preferences yet highlights ways that a representative or policymaker might improve on vote-counting as a decision procedure.

The public utilitarian argument involves three claims that, if accepted, show that optimal distribution strategy for a public good is to maximize the utility (usually via preference satisfaction) of a community.

The first is that every citizen has an equal stake in the public weal. This is uncontroversial and little more than the definition of citizenship in a modern democratic state.

The second claim is that the best way to allocate each citizen’s stake is in terms of preference satisfaction. This claim is certainly debatable but is at least plausible. The utilitarian idea that optimization should boil down to preference satisfaction has intriguing benefits and clear drawbacks. Optimizing preference satisfaction may support more personalized and complex trade-offs that benefit all citizens. Given two people, one of whom cares a lot about material goods and the other a lot about leisure, strategies that try to provide equivalent material goods are sub-optimal. Baskets of primary goods (which we’d encounter in Kantian political theory) are designed to alleviate this kind of issue, but they can only do so in ways that reflect broad trade-offs that might not capture deeper, more specific concerns of specific people.

The third claim is that, with few exceptions, there is no reason for public policy to satisfy some preferences and not others. Here, transformative choices create severe issues for the utilitarian. As with personal utilitarianism, the very existence of transformative decisions makes it difficult to treat preference sets as things that just happen and that deserve equal satisfaction. However, when it comes to public policy, self-altering decisions create even more severe problems because of the deep interrelationship between our desire for self-change and our need to have a culture that supports that change well. In this sense, self-change preferences are unavoidably and deeply public.

Lack of Information

For the utilitarian to handle self-change preferences, those preferences need to be incorporated into each individual’s preference set and must become part of the public optimization problem. In other words, if I want to become more courageous or more disciplined, that self-change preference needs to be included in the preference allocation decisions a society makes.

But how?

Personal change is an internal point of view comprehensible only with a deep personal idea of who you are. Not only is it far harder to canvas basic personal preferences, it’s almost impossible for any external actor to figure out how they might be satisfied. There’s no way to know how person X and person Y will experience an action and no way to guess how much it will impact their cognitive structure. It is hard enough for an individual – with the best interior view of their own cognitive states, past experiences, and preference aspirations – to make these predictions for themselves. Making them from the outside is impossible.

Policy makers lack any plausible means of making the determinations necessary for any optimization. They lack information about actual self-change desires. They lack information about feedback mechanisms. They lack any means of assessing equivalency or equal shares. And they lack any comparable currency (like money) with which to solve the optimization problem. In short, when self-altering decisions are in play the biggest advantage of the utilitarian program in public-policy – its simplicity of understanding and application – is utterly lost.

Transformative Preferences Don’t Sum Naturally and Can’t be Distributed Equally

Solve the information problem and things just get worse. Even with full information, there is no point-of-view from which a public policy decider could choose a transformative optimum. When you realize that policy will change people and that the resulting cultures will reward fundamentally different types of people, there is no longer a plausible path to optimizing transformative preferences.

To satisfy our self-change desires means to have experiences that move us in a desired direction and to avoid experiences that move us away from what we want to be. Culture dictates what kind of experiences are available to us AND it dictates what kinds of feedback we get inside those experiences. So, preferences about self-change naturally translate into preferences for a specific type of culture.

A utilitarian wishing to create an optimal society in a world of transformative decision-makers must try to determine the optimal cultural environment to allow people to become who they want to be. That’s a comprehensible vision but it entails huge conceptual problems.

Part of what makes it at least borderline plausible to think about summing personal preferences is that we can think about them as atomic. Each person’s preferences are theirs and satisfying one person’s preferences shouldn’t necessarily impact anyone else provided they get an equal share. This is clearly true in cases where a currency of exchange exists. You getting $100 doesn’t make my getting $100 any less valuable (or at least not significantly – obviously the amount of money in a society does determine price levels but for specific allocations the impact isn’t significant – and direct satisfaction of preferences doesn’t suffer a corresponding inflation problem).

When it comes to building cultural mechanisms for supporting transformative preferences (feedback), that’s not true.

Much of what a culture is comes embodied in feedback norms. These norms are the things culture teaches us to value or dislike and the ways it gives us to provide feedback to others about their character, actions and abilities. These feedback norms are value laden. They are nothing but value. They are also tremendously important in framing the opportunities each member of society has for shaping a life. They determine many of the reactions a person gets – and what that person will actually experience – when they behave in certain ways.

But whether it is a matter of what kind of feedback norms the government will encourage or simply a question of what kind of culture a utilitarian should want to create, feedback represents a terrible problem in optimization. People with different visions of a good life will prefer fundamentally different cultures – and there’s no plausible way to satisfy competing visions to an equal extent. A culture cannot be optimized for both monks and entrepreneurs. Worse, simply adding together incompatible versions of the good life results in feedback loops that make no sense to either vision. It’s easy to imagine a culture that provides no one with decent support for self-change because the mechanisms for feedback are so chaotic and random. It’s easy to imagine such a society because it’s very close to what we live in.

When feedback doesn’t follow the values a person wants in others, that feedback IS a bad thing not a neutral fact. Giving other people the “wrong” kind of feedback isn’t value neutral to me the way giving them $100 is. This makes a utilitarian distribution impossible. Not only must a utilitarian understand what kinds of feedback I prefer, they must understand how a person would rank everyone else’s vision of proper feedback too. In other words, to figure out what kind of feedback mechanisms ought to be encouraged in a culture, a utilitarian policymaker would need to understand what Person X would prefer AND how much Person X dislikes/likes what each and every other person would prefer. In a population of a million people, that means summing a million preferences for each of the million people.[2] In other words, instead of a million preferences to sum, you have 1 million times 1 million preferences to consider (that’s a trillion). That makes the already difficult utilitarian summation problem absurd.

Even supposing there was a practical shortcut to solving the summation problem, the idea of summing self-altering desires has a lot less appeal than summing happiness. We are much more likely to agree that everyone’s happiness or well-being is of equal value than that everyone’s vision of who they want to be has equal value. After all, some of these people will want to become people that we like less, think are less valuable, and would prefer not to have in society. What’s more, many of those people will want us to become something we positively do not want to become. A utilitarian would have to be committed to at least the possibility of a public policy that drove a society toward creating people they personally didn’t like, value or want. Worse, a utilitarian must be committed to the possibility of a public policy that drives they themselves to become a person they don’t want to be. That’s irrational and self-defeating.

While preference satisfaction cases also involve trade-offs, they don’t involve the same kind of basic conflict in vision. We think of distributing public goods as the paradigm case of utilitarian public policy. But when the case involves distributing cultural power, the argument is problematic. In every society there will be people who wish to preserve existing cultural traditions (these are preference shaping mechanisms) and people who wish to change them (these are preference shaping mechanisms too). This would seem to suggest that to the utilitarian in public policy, the right decision is based on summing the preference changing preferences of the impacted population. Unlike the pool and tennis court situation, this does not seem natural. It means that “right” and “best” answer about what to value in people and what kind of things society should value is nothing less or more than whatever the most people in society happen to value at any one time. Nor will there ever be an allocation strategy that will give everyone an equal share of preference change. If (as they will) people have competing visions of what a good life is, a policy decision must choose between them.

In theory, a utilitarian could solve this problem by insisting that public decision-makers concern themselves only with cases that don’t involve any value judgements. There might be a plausible case for a government limited in this fashion. However, in a society built along these lines, there would be no legal marriage, no tax breaks for home ownership, no scientific funding, no child labor laws, no progressive tax policies, no NPR or NASA and no public education. By the time you’ve stripped out everything in government that involves some commitment to a kind of life or value, what’s left looks very different than what we consider government.  Yes, choosing between a tennis court or a pool might make the cut, but even a decision about whether to build a new football stadium or a library isn’t just a question of distribution – it’s a question of values and what kind of people we want to create.


Everyone has their own emotional resonances to ethical theory. There is little in the utilitarian demand for impartiality that I find appealing. Perhaps you feel differently. Nothing in this argument means you can’t decide to work to maximize human or sensate happiness. But it should make plain that even when it comes to pubic policy and the allocation of public goods, rationality does not demand a utilitarian perspective. Utilitarianism simply misses the point about important aspects of decision-making and preference change. You cannot maximize someone else’s preference changes and if you do nothing but maximize their existing preferences, you are likely doing them a disservice. Perhaps more surprising, this is as true at the level of public policy as it is in personal relations.

[1] This public version of Utilitarianism would also apply to any group situation. Companies with stockholders, clubs with memberships, etc. Any situation where there are a multiplicity of people with equal status and individual preference sets.

[2] Why a million? It’s 1 preference for themselves plus one preference for each of the other 999,999 other population member’s preference for feedback mechanisms.