L.A. Paul on Vampires, Life Choices, and Transformation
May 4 2020

Transformative-Experience-191x300.jpg Philosopher and author L.A. Paul talks about her book Transformative Experience with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Paul explores the uncertainties that surround the transformative experiences that we choose and that happen to us without choosing. How should we think about the morality and personal impact of these kinds of experiences, especially when some decisions are very hard or impossible to reverse? Examples include becoming a vampire, having children, religion, and other life experiences and choices.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


May 4 2020 at 11:48am

Interesting topic to think about but I could also help but feel a little bit “So what?”

Like what is anyone supposed to do with the this knowledge that choices you make in life change you? It sounds like the only possible thing it can do is make you indecisive or second guess your choices or maybe accept that you’ll change and embrace the changes.

I haven’t had the fortune of what is probably the biggest change, having children, but I have unconsciously or at least without reflecttion made all kinds of choices. I choose to be geek (software engineer) which has both opened and closed doors. I choose to live abroad which effectively means I gave up all my friends and family. Yes they still exist but being 7000 miles and 7 time zone away basically means I talk family just a few times a year and friends from there even less. I certainly didn’t think in advance “wow, if I do this I’ll lose all of that”. I just jumped in. I can look back and see how I got where I am but each step was a small choice. I choose to move abroad thinking it would be short, it ended up being long. I took a job and company X thinking it would be a step to my goals, it turn out to compeletly derail my goals and change me as a person so I know longer even have the same goals.

My point being that’s true for a great many things, some choices are more direct but you can probably look back and see your choice of friends highly influenced who you are today. The college or job you choose made a huge change likely, not because of that specific college but because like the wings of butterfly it set in motion the friends you made, the contacts you made, the job experiences you made and those compounded and compounded to make you who you are today.

Choose to have or not have kids, be a vampire, etc, there’s no way to know if it’s going to go well or poorly, so knowing there is no way to know you’re not left with any new knowledge to choose with. If you didn’t know knowing was impossible nothing would change. Just going out today you could met your next big relationship that changes you for good or bad, should you choose to go out? You can’t know.

May 5 2020 at 11:42am

Agree with Gregg!

I do have some concern with Russ’ sort of crusade against measurability. Take happiness, for example. I think this is pretty trivial to show he is wrong. Take 2 things that make you happy. Can you say whether one was ‘more happy’ than the other? In other words, if you could keep only 1 of the experiences, which would you choose? Unless you are utterly unable to make the decision, that is measurement. Unless you also believe in dualism, that measurement will be reflected in brain states.

Obviously it is much more complicated than this. There are different types of happiness and our scales can change. Further, it is possible that we will never find a good method to measure this. That said, I think this very simple question illustrates that it is possible _in principle_ to measure happiness.

Russ is taking a very strong position: “There are things about the human experience we will never be able to quantify.” That requires a whole different level of proof than what I believe the position of someone like Singer is taking.

Also, “who cares about happiness” is what an unhappy person says <grin>. I get what he is saying, but the entire point of “go experience a range of stuff” is with the goal of being happier along the way. If experiencing a range of stuff was very well known to make people unhappier, what fool would do it?

May 6 2020 at 4:01pm

I was reminded of the series “What We Do in the Shadows,” a faux comical documentary of vampires. In it, they explore some of these very choices.

In a recent episode, they learned to conjure the ghosts of their dead selves and talked with themselves about some of these choices.

In another example, one of the vampires was looking to get back a necklace that she had lost at a neighbors decades prior. When she found it with the descendants of her old neighbors, she opted to “just wait til they die” to take it back, because from her frame of reference that wouldn’t be too long.

I’ve often wondered how we would change if we hit the singularity (right term for uploading our minds?), when we will just need to plug in, instead of eat. That will change things.

Altered Carbon, a Netflix series, actually does a pretty good job of exploring implications of that.

Dr Golabki
May 7 2020 at 11:18am

Great episode, thank you. Can I preemptively vote for this as one of the best episodes of 2020?

A few thoughts and questions below:

I wonder how LA sees Nietzsche in the context of her work. Like LA, he was deeply interested self-determined transformation (although admittedly he was probably less interested in vampires and children). The view of life/consciousness as a static thing, rather than a dynamic process, is one of the biggest and most deeply ingrained mistakes we make when thinking about ourselves.

I was interested in the example of a deaf person choosing not to have their child get cochlear implants. It feels very close to culture relativism. If I’m from the hearing community I value some things, if I’m from the deaf community I value others. There’s no objective standard, they’re just different. That seems reasonable in the cochlear implant case, but what if we flip the burden of action? In this scenario a deaf person has a child with normal hearing and chooses to surgically deafen the baby. I could certainly imagine the parent would think about it if a doctor offered the option, for all the same reasons LA mentioned in the cochlear implant case. But here our moral intuition is quite different. It strikes me that it’s possible to say having all 5 senses and all 4 limbs is “better” (in some objective way), while also saying that there’s great value in the lives and experiences of people that don’t have them all.

I was surprised how frequently LA talked about these “choices” like we were really weighing the pros and cons. As far as I can tell, I choose to have children because I was the sort of person who wanted to be the sort of person who has children. It wasn’t a trivial choice, I had to quit a great job and take one that involved much less travel, but at the time I didn’t feel I really had much of a “choice”. How I became the sort of person who wanted to be the sort of person who had children is a harder question, but I’m pretty sure very little of it was a conscious cost/benefit calculation.

On a related note, I was shocked that Russ did not bring up his favorite AI question, “Can my Roomba dream of becoming a self-driving car?” as that seems like the equivalent of LA’s question, “Should I become a vampire?”

Lastly, I feel the Consequentialists got characterized a bit unfairly because they weren’t around to defend themselves. Just because you think there’s an optimal answer to each moral decision doesn’t mean you have to believe that the answer is knowable or actionable for humans. All the personal feelings/preferences/faults that make you an individual are only a problem for the Utilitarian if you assume that the Utilitarian thinks you have to be morally perfect.

Jun 10 2020 at 7:12pm

I wish you would’ve touched on the problems with personal identity… but there’s only so much you can cover.

Delighted to hear that Russ did a silent retreat, he gets more interesting the more I listen to him.

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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: February 11, 2020.]

Russ Roberts: Today is February 11th, 2020, and my guest is Philosopher and Professor L.A. Paul of Yale University. Her latest book and the subject of today's conversation is Transformative Experience. Laurie, welcome to EconTalk.

L.A. Paul: It's nice to be here.


Russ Roberts: This book tied together a number of issues I've been thinking about lately related to rationality, decision-making, data, evidence, how to live your life. And it did so in some very delightful and unexpected ways. It's hard to believe, but in the entire EconTalk archive of over 700+ episodes, I have never had a guest talk about being a vampire. But that streak is over. I want to start with how you start your book, with a seemingly silly question, turns out not to be silly. But, the question is: Should a person become a vampire? Why is that hard decision?

L.A. Paul: Well. So I think that the possibility of becoming a vampire is an intensely interesting one. I like to imagine Dracula coming to you as you're touring a dungeon, somewhere in Europe, and offering you this irreversible choice. Do you want to join his legions of the undead and get these amazing new sensory powers, and look fabulous and black and be incredible in all sorts of sexy ways? Or, do you want to just like your ordinary life as a human? That's how he'd put it.

But, there are other ways to think about it. Right? Do you want to sleep in a coffin, never spend another summer's day on the beach, and drink blood?

Now, I think it's important to elide moral issues. So, whatever blood you were drinking might be artificial blood, or humanely-farmed animal blood, or something like that. But, it's a thought experiment designed around one central issue, which is: as you find out about the possibility of becoming a vampire, as you talk to other former humans who are vampires--because, of course, immediately what you do is go out and try to get some evidence and information about what it's like to be a vampire to make your decision--you find out that, at least according to their testimony, they say you can't really understand what it's like to be a vampire until you become one. Mere humans just lack the ability to comprehend the fantastic, supernatural reality that we vampires live.

So, if you're going to make this choice--let's say that Dracula's going to come to you at midnight, you open the window of your Airbnb if you want him to stay and make you one of his--or you keep your window closed and you leave. Your decision is to either embrace him or retract him.

And if that decision is based on whether you want to become a vampire, which turns on what it would be like for you to become a vampire, then you have a problem. Because, if it's the kind of thing that you can only know and understand once you become a vampire, and if it's irreversible--this is a one-shot sort of thing--then you lack the kind of information that you need to make an informed decision. Or so I argue. That there's a problem here. Namely, that you don't know what it's like to live your life forward as a vampire. That's what you'd need to assign value to, in order to decide whether you want to have that life, or whether you want to keep the life that you have.

If you can't assign that possibility value, at least straightforwardly--value based on what it would be like for you to be a vampire--then your preferences are incomplete, or you haven't got the information that you need to make the choice in an informed way.

Russ Roberts: In particular, you argue that you can't figure out what your expected utility would be. The likely level of wellbeing or happiness that you'd attain. It's further complicated by the fact that how you feel about being a vampire might be very different once you are one than before you are one.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. So, one, there are a number of obvious responses to this initial puzzle that I'd like to talk about. The first thought is, look, ordinarily when you're thinking about some new thing, like whether you want to build an addition onto your house, you imaginatively model what it would be like to have a house like that or a room like that, and think of yourself enjoying that room--how much you would enjoy it and how much it would cost to build it--and make your decision on that basis. Or maybe you look at a bunch of different plans, and choose between them. That's just a very natural way to do things. But, in this context, you haven't got that information, because you can't know what it's like to be a vampire, so you can't model things in this imaginative way.

So, then, what do you do? Maybe you try and get evidence from other vampires, people who've become vampires, and find out what it was like for them. If they all seem to like it, maybe that's just good enough.

But, the problem is--well, there are several problems. But, one problem is that, with this kind of choice, it seems like it changes you in a very deep and fundamental way. It changes, in many ways, who you are. For example, if you become a vampire, you might have very strong opinions about what kind of blood you like, what sort of animals or what sort of artificial construction you prefer. Whereas, I wager, like, right now you probably don't have those preferences. If you become a vampire, you'll probably prefer to drink blood over anything else. Like, fine wine just loses its savor. So, there are all kinds of taste preferences that will change. Arguably, you may care less about other people and a lot more about yourself if you're a vampire. They have a reputation for being narcissists. These kinds of changes are substantial.

In addition, the way that I envision the testimony, is that the vampires say that, 'This is an incredible amazing experience. You should absolutely do it. It changed my life.' So, some of your fundamental and core desires and preferences are really just going to be quite different.

Now, if you can't know what it's like to be a vampire, yet you know you're going to change radically, so you can't project yourself into that possible life, then, there's a further question about how you're supposed to evaluate this testimony of these vampires. Because, even though as vampires, they might be incredibly satisfied with the life that they've chosen and the way that they are now, how does that compare to what they cared about when they were human? Does it naturally extend--if their preferences changed radically, then whose preferences matter when you make that decision: the preferences of the vampire, or the preferences of the human that made the decision?


Russ Roberts: Normally, you point out, one might turn to social science research. You might ask, 'Let's look at the characteristics of people who became vampires and whether they correlate with your characteristics, in[?] the one that turn out to be happier than others.' You've sort of worded this that everybody likes being a vampire once they become one, but of course in real life--to coin a really inappropriate phrase in this thought experiment--in real life, some people turn out they regret being a vampire. They miss being human. And so, you'd want to know, am I like that person?

Just like when you consider building that addition to your house, you might go talk to the people who've done it, and go look at their houses and see, 'Are they like me? Are they not like me?' Given the costs and given what the room is like and how it changes, the lack of the--how it reduces claustrophobia. Whatever it is.

And, you point out, I think correctly, that the science on these kind of questions is never, and I underline never, fine-grained enough--I think that's your phrase--to make a reliable prediction about how you will feel.

In other words, it might be true that on average, former faculty members of such and such university who are 5'6", and who were born in Memphis, Tennessee like being a vampire once they become a vampire, but since they won't have any data on, say, the country of origin of my great grandmother on my father's side, they're going to miss out something crucial that turns out to affect how much people like it. And therefore, the standard techniques you might use to assess whether this is a good idea might be useful on average, which could be used say in a policy discussion, but might not--are unlikely--to be useful to me.

L.A. Paul: Right. Okay. So, there are at least three things that I focus on in this situation. Because, absolutely, I mean the normal thing to do in a normal context is to go and get--sometimes people just rely on anecdotal evidence. I think that it's better to rely on the science, for obvious reasons: It's vetted. So, let's pretend that there's plenty of social science and testimonial evidence from vampires that has been collected up by careful psychologists, economists, sociologists, etc. And, your investigations present you with an assessment of the wellbeing, or life satisfaction, or happiness or whatever it is that vampires experience once they've become vampires. How do you evaluate that information as it applies to you?

Now, there are three problems that I think are related here. One, there's a problem of reference. There's a reference class problem. Like, you have to know that this evidence applies to you, in the sense that it applies to people like you.

The second problem involves assessing the meaning of an average value result.

And then the third problem which I want to talk about is a little bit conceptually harder; and that involves the problem of this diachronic decision, and the relationship of the testimony, which applies to after-the-fact assessment. And that involves what's called 'act-state independence. '

So, the first case--

Russ Roberts: Explain what you mean by 'diachronic.'

L.A. Paul: Diachronic means across time. So, you make a choice to undergo an experience. You make that choice, let's say at noon. And then you undergo the experience a few hours later and become a vampire, let's say, by 5:00 p.m. Let's say it doesn't happen instantaneously. Or, even if it does, it takes a couple seconds. So, you're making a choice at t1, at noon, for a future self--the one at 5:00 p.m. that's a vampire. So, it's diachronic in the sense that it's across times in a relevant way.

But, the reference class thing is the easiest thing, so let me talk about that first. Ordinarily, when you're looking at evidence, you need to know that it applies to people like you. In the book, I didn't even--like, I tried to elide that issue, because I thought there were harder questions and the--

Russ Roberts: Can of worms, too.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. Exactly. But, like, very loosely, the problems is: Well, how do you know that the population of humans that turn into vampires is a population that's similar to you in relevant respects? So that you know that you would respond the way that they did, at least in the sense that you would testify relevantly in the same way as they would.

Russ Roberts: That's a classic problem with, say, returns to going to college. People who go to college make more than people who don't, but that doesn't necessarily mean that people who haven't gone to college and do, will turn out economically to do as well, because they're not exactly the same.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. There's all kind of black-boxing issues here, all kinds of questions. And, of course, these questions come up with respect to taking ordinary evidence and applying it to this case.

Now, why I think it's interesting in this case that the reference class problem has some relevance, like special relevance here, is just that: I think with life changing decisions it's especially important to worry about being a member of the reference class. In low stakes cases you might say, 'Well, it seems like I'm similar in the relevant ways,' or maybe things like you mentioned going to college, like standard demographic variables seems like the right ones to rely on: maybe people of my social class, people of my age or whatever tend to have a good effect.

But, something as interesting and distinctive as becoming a vampire--or I talked about other cases, I'm sure we'll get to them, like cases involving having a child, or a disability, or whatever--it seems like so many other variables matter other than the demographic variables that are usually assessed, that there is a kind of reference class problem here. Because, the properties that seem to matter--how you think you need to be similar to the other individuals who are tested--can be highly variable.

You might not have that information. And, because it's a life-stakes, high-value, life-changing question, it really matters to you that you get it right. So, just kind of flipping a coin or hoping for the best isn't good.

Russ Roberts: And, it seems the other crucial point is that: you remodel your house, you called it 'small stakes.' There are a lot of things you can do, decisions you can make, that you can reverse. If you decide to go to college and it's not working out for you, you can drop out. Getting married, you can get divorced. But it's a big change. Having a child. You're kind of stuck with them. Choosing a career--well, you can change careers.

But, as--these decisions are very, very different from what to have for dinner and where to go on vacation. Right? A lost, horrible vacation that you're not enjoying, you could end. These are things that are typically no-return choices, or if return, very high cost.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. And, sometimes, even the act of making the choice changes you in this irreversible way. Because it's just such a huge psychological thing to actually make the choice in the first place. And then you can have responsibility to others. For example, the child that you would create, etc.

So, I think the reference class problem, as ordinary as it is, actually takes on special significance in this context.

The same is true of a related thing, which is this question about average values. When you evaluate evidence, and you're told, 'Well, people testified to such and such degree of increase in life satisfaction, or decrease, or whatever the question is,' the values that you get are average values, which means they're averaged--like, there's a lot of variation within, like, some kind of span of error. And, again, because we're talking about high-stakes, life-altering decisions, the fact that you could fall anywhere on a span--like there can be a fairly large or significant error bar with respect to average values--can actually have a huge impact.

So, even if you have the best reasonable evidence that you can have, you still, in a sense, don't have the right fine-grained evidence about how the value that you would receive, even if you are a member of the reference class, and even if you know that the value that you're going to get from this change is going to be somewhere along that span. That's especially important if the error bar extends between positive and negative values.


Russ Roberts: It's not just the error bar, though. It's the--you don't know what your draw from the urn is going to be like. You don't know what kind of child you're going to have. I have to move it away from vampires for a moment, because we're going to turn to that question soon. You don't know whether you're going to be someone who loves being a professor; thinks it's pretty much okay, except during exam time when you have to grade a lot; or that you hate it all the time.

The average return is very misleading. And I think that the emphasis in decision theory on expected utility, which is just basically the probability of an outcome times the outcome itself, the payoff is a grotesquely simplified and misleading choice.

It's a misleading choice in gambling, where it's often invoked as if it's, like, science. But it's certainly a misleading choice in life. Expected utility is not what you maximize. It's a stupid idea. You care about the whole range of the distribution. And, you will feel very differently about a slightly pleasant outcome versus a horrific one.

And so, the idea of--you allude to this at various times in the book--the idea that you would not pay extremely close attention to downside risk or upside return and only look at the average, is absurd in human life, and in most investing and gambling decisions.

So, I think that whole framework--I'm tempted to say it's a straw man, but I think it's not. And I think part of what your book is doing is making it clear just how inappropriate that criterion is for making big decisions.

L.A. Paul: Right. So, the span that matters here is the span between the most negative and the most positive value that you could get that's consistent with the average value. And of course, what matters is how you would actually respond, and what value you would actually have.

It matters a huge amount. And that's what we really care about when we're making a decision. Even independently of: Should we think about maximizing expected value, should--you know, in some larger sense.

Even if we follow the rough guidelines, the fact that the details that we can get given empirical evidence won't allow us to make a decision even in that framework in the careful way that we want to, is a problem.

Let me say, though, that there's, again, a special reason why in the kinds of cases I'm interested in, there's a distinctive problem. The distinctive problem is that in the book I talk about epistemic revelation, and epistemic transformation. And part of what I mean there is that, when you become a vampire--

Russ Roberts: 'Epistemic' meaning related to knowledge.

L.A. Paul: Yeah; I mean, really--yes. And, what I say is that, we can find ourselves in certain situations where we can't know about something until we actually experience it. And that's partly just because of the way the brain works. Sometimes description and testimony, just can't give us what we need. We actually have to have the experience.

And a stock example in philosophy is like the experience of seeing red. You can't teach someone what it's like to see red just by describing what it's like to see red. They have to actually have seen it or at least seen colors very close to it, at best.


Russ Roberts: Explain the Mary's room example.

L.A. Paul: Okay. So, in--there's an example by Frank Jackson, where he talks how, about Imagine Mary, he grows up in a black and white environment, has only seen black and white and maybe seen shades of gray, is then faced with the possibility of going out into the rest of the world and seeing color for the first time. Now, Jackson is using this example for a particular argument about consciousness. I'm not making that argument, and so my example's not quite as constrained as his. But the basic picture is this: That, when Mary leaves--let's say she goes out there. When Mary leaves her black and white room and sees a red fire engine for the first time, assuming that she has ordinary color vision, she learns something new: What it's like to see red.

A lot of people, myself included, and the vast majority of philosophers agree with this. And I think non-philosophers also agree with this, to the extent that I've talked. So, it really just comes down to, again, the way that the brain works. Sometimes experience teaches us things that we couldn't know in any other way. If you imagine someone who's congenitally blind, or congenitally deaf, who then through some kind of surgery gains the capacity to see or the capacity to have ordinary hearing. They are going to learn something new about the world, or they're going to have new kinds of experiences, basically, from the stimuli that they receive about the world.

And, the thought is that this teaches us that sometimes experience expands us epistemically. It adds or changes what we know, and that we can't get that from simple description or testimony.

So, going back to the issue that I was talking about with respect to average value, and also to some extent to the reference class problem. But, sometimes when we get a description of the testimony, and we're told about some possible outcome and how we're likely to respond--right?--we try to find our own, we try to narrow down I think the information that we're given by imaginatively reflecting on how we would respond to a particular situation to get an assessment of how we think the claim about the average value is that we'll receive corresponds to our own best forecasting.

So we forecast for ourselves individually and try to project ourselves forward.

But, in this kind of context, we can't do it: because we lack the information that we need to be able to do that kind of imaginative projection.

That's the point. It's because you have to have the experience that you kind of gain the ability to assess what this experience is like. And so, you can't actually try to minimize or address the problem of average value in the ordinary way by imagining how you would respond, assuming that there's an accuracy constraint here, to try to fine-grain the data that you get in some useful way.

So, again, because it's a transformative experience, involving both epistemic and personal transformation, you find yourself in a high stakes situation, where you lack even the ordinary tools that you might use in ordinary contexts to fix the reference class, and try to fine-grain the average value result for yourself.


Russ Roberts: I think you used the phrase, 'Science has not created a sufficiently fine-grained source of data yet.' But I would go as far as to say that it is beyond the scope of social science to do that, or science generally. It's not a scientific question, ultimately. In a recent episode with Peter Singer, when I suggested that we would never have a science of happiness, he would say we're not there yet but that we're making progress. I said, 'We'll never get there.'

He was shocked that an economist would say that this was not --not just not likely, but essentially I view it as unscientific to try to do that. I think there are aspects of the human experience that are not quantifiable, and I think the attempt to reduce the experience of being a vampire, or having a child--to what mathematicians call a scalar, meaning a single number. 'Oh, well, being a vampire, that's an 8.3. If you stay human, it's only a 7.1,' I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of reality.

Of course, we can take the multifaceted aspects of being a vampire, or the multifaceted aspects of having a child, the multifaceted aspects of choosing to be a lawyer instead of a doctor , and weight them. We can make an equation that turns them into a scalar, the different aspects. And then, assess their level and then weight them to get a combined score of life as a lawyer.

I think that is a fundamental violence to what--I don't say that as a joke. I mean, it's like to be a parent, say. That, to say--I have four children. I'm glad I had them, so far. I don't say that as a joke. I mean, it's possible that over the course of a lifetime, you could regret having children.

But, the idea that the highs and the lows of having children, that somehow you could weight the sleepless nights and anxiety against the deepest satisfactions you might have as a parent and somehow combine them into a score to decide whether it was worthwhile or not just strikes me as unhuman, antihuman. I understand the urge of science and social science to do that, but I think it's a mistake. And, I'm curious your reaction to that.

L.A. Paul: So, I'm sympathetic to that. Although, let me just say that I want to get back to third, the third, most serious problem--

Russ Roberts: I'll bring you back. Great.

L.A. Paul: Got it.

Yeah, in the book I talk about having a certain epistemic humility. Again, humility about what we can do and what we can't. And, I'm sympathetic to the thought that you can't--I think you certainly can't reduce the nature and character of human experience to a number.

But, what's even maybe more important is, and what you're saying, that, there's a kind of misunderstanding of the comparison we need to make and the decision that we need to make by attempting to reduce everything to a particular type of quantifiable result.

The way that I like to think about it is by recognizing that there might be a mistake in trying to kind of, you know, reduce the richness and quality and character of human experience to numbers, at least in certain contexts, even if let's say for policy reasons we have to do it in other kinds of situations, is that, what we need to do then is recognize that that's not the right thing to do, and develop alternative models and think about alternative ways of making decisions that can respect this, and just face the constraints that the world gives us.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I have some thoughts on the alternatives. We're going to get to that, of course. But, what's your third thing that's troubling?

L.A. Paul: Okay. The third thing is I actually think the most serious problem. And again, it's distinctive to the question of a transformative experience, where you undergo a life-changing experience that also changes, like, what you know. That you learn about it only once you've done it.

And, that goes back to this issue about diachronic decision-making. Because, if you have to make a choice about whether to undergo this life-changing decision, and it's going to change who you are in a fundamental and core way, some of your central preferences, then you have to decide.

Especially if, in that context, right now, let's say you prefer not to become a vampire. But, all of the testimony that you're getting, or the vast majority of the testifiers that you're listening to tell you it's fabulous to become a vampire. And you think, in fact, that maybe, for whatever reason,it's quite likely that if you became a vampire you'd be happy with that result too.

Then, you have to figure out whether you want to respect your current preferences--your ex-ante preferences, your preferences at the time of decision to not be a vampire and just kind of override those, or whether you want to respect those preferences, and so not override them. Or chose to override those somehow, and become a vampire, because you know who you'll become will be happy with that result.

And, the question is, is there a principled way to do this? Which self matters? The self making the decision, or the self that would result? If they conflict, and there's no meta principle to resolve it, like the selves don't agree on what the ultimate correct decision should be, then you don't have a decision rule that you can use.

And, earlier, I said that the way that I understand the problem in the context of the transformative experience is that, in these cases where the choice changes who you are, then there's a violation of a kind of fundamental axiom that's usually taken for granted[?], the act-state independence axiom. And the way that I think of it as is that, normally when you're changing something, let's say about yourself or about the world, you have to keep everything else fixed to assess the value of that change correctly. When people talk about dependence, they want to find out what--can I understand the structure or the mechanism of the dependence that I'm discovering? If I wiggle one thing, and then another thing wiggles, is there a straightforward connection between those wiggles that will allow me to make the desired inference.

And in this case, you can know that if you become a vampire, you'll be highly satisfied with the result, even though right now you don't want to become a vampire. So you know if you wiggle things, if you become a vampire, that you'll be satisfied. But, you don't know whether or not that's because there's some maybe internal preference that you have that just would be realized by this, or whether--no; it's just that your preferences just simply get replaced, and so you become a new kind of self.

So, the act that you undergo, and the state that you have at the end of it are dependent on each other. Who you are as a person changes; and so there's no straightforward way to make the decision. No way to evaluate which self should take priority.

Russ Roberts: I want to thank Plantronics for providing Laurie's headset, the Blackwire 5220.


Russ Roberts: To respond to that point about the change in who you are, I think it reminded me of a couple things. One is, it reminded me of Nozick's experience machine--you know, whether you'd want to hook yourself up to a machine. Once you're on the machine, you don't know that you're on the machine. You feel like you're living actual life, and you're President of the United States, you're a gold medal skier, whatever--world class philosopher--whatever is your fantasy of what would be the greatest experiences to have, a rockstar, etc. But, you won't know that you've left behind your "real self."

And, you know, in that situation, I think we're troubled by that. The vampire one is kind of silly. We have trouble thinking about it. But, when I talk about this decision to have children, and listeners know I've been talking episodically about this on various episodes, about whether this is an analytical decision or not, should it be an analytical decision--and one of the things I've suggested was, 'Well you're a different person after you've had kids.' Anybody who has had kids knows that.

Anyone who has kids knows that after you've had kids, you feel very differently about kids than before. You certainly feel differently about your own kids, because you didn't have any before. And so, you are a different person.

And you raised the example--I'm going to give a variation on it--of someone who, let's say, takes a drug, becomes addicted, and then let's just say becomes blissfully ignorant of everything, and drifts off into a very pleasant drug-induced euphoria that lasts forever. Most people would say, 'I'm not so crazy about that.' They understand there's something slightly disturbing about the experience machine.

The parenting thing--it doesn't strike them as similar, because 'Well, people do that and it seems okay.' But, they're fundamentally the same problem, which is that, ex-ante, your decisions about how you feel about it don't have a very analytical way to be compared to the ones that come after. Just: It's over, analytically, it seems to me.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. So, a way to put what you were saying and what I say in the book is that they're a class of decisions that have this structure--let's say, the decision to get a frontal lobotomy; the decision to be eaten by a shark--where the result would be bad. The decision to get a frontal lobotomy, presumably you would testify that it was good. These decisions where they change you in all kinds of crazy ways, and where--the shark one is weird, but what I was suggesting is: there could be someone who said, 'Oh, yeah, I'm glad I was injured in this way. It taught me something about life.' But we obviously think you don't purposefully get yourself injured by a shark.

Russ Roberts: But, you talk in the book about people who volunteer to be on the front lines of war, which is close to jumping in shark-infested waters.

L.A. Paul: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So, the point is that we have these incompatibilities in certain kind of life-changing decisions, or experiences more generally, where there's an incompatibility between the selves. And in some cases, culturally we just: 'Don't do that.' You don't get a frontal lobotomy. We say, 'Well, we value a certain kind of mental capacity over another kind of mental capacity, so that just gives us the rule that we follow.' Or, you don't choose to undergo great pain unless there's some other argument for doing so. Etc.

But, then there are cases like choosing to have a child, where there isn't a kind of dominant cultural narrative, in the sense that we understand some people want to have children and other people don't. Or maybe choosing to go to sacrifice yourself in other ways, like to devote yourself to the care of the poor, or to give up all kinds of things in order to help other people. There are lots of things that people do, but that we don't expect everyone to do, that involve these kinds of life-changing decisions. And where the solution is not supposed to be that you follow some dominant cultural rule, but that you think about it for yourself, and make the decision that's best for you, and maybe the people right around you.

And my point is, well, as soon as we leave it to the individual, and if what we're leaving to the individual is the choice of whether or not to undergo a life-changing experience that's going to change also what someone knows and understands, or make you into a new kind of person, then, we're confronted with a decision problem--because we don't have any kind of rule to follow, and we lack the ability to make the decision by ourselves in the way that we're expecting ourselves to make that decision.


Russ Roberts: You talk a lot about, I would call it a meta solution to this problem, which is that--and I think it's the way many people think about it, and I think it's the way many cultural norms think about it, which is: in the case of having children, I've argued that it's probably a good idea to have children. Not everybody should have children. Not everybody can, of course. But, for those who can, it's a good idea because it's part of the human experience. It's something to experience. You could argue it's harmful. You could argue you might not like it. But, it is part of what most people through human history have experienced. And it will change you; and you will explore it. You'll become a new person.

And, there's something about having a taste for novelty, which you talk about. A lot of people don't like that. They're very risk averse about novelty, and they like to not try new foods, not try new things, not travel, etc.

But, for a lot of people, just the idea of experiencing something you haven't experienced before has a novel--'novel' is not the right word there--it has a beneficial effect on the experience of being alive.

I think people invoke this not just for about having children, but they invoke it about trying certain mind altering drugs or mushrooms. They invoke it about--I talked about being on a silent meditation retreat. When I tell that to people, they often say, 'I couldn't do that.' And I try to say, 'Oh, yes, you could! I felt the same way, and I could do it. And it's okay.' But, of course, they think, 'Oh, that's him. Not me.' It's exactly the same point you're talking about. I'm not suggesting everybody should experience five days of silence, but these are things that allow you to explore who you are, who you want to be. Some of them are one-way trips. You can't go back. You can't give it up. You can't return it. You can't shorten it. Others are of that nature that you can shorten it. But, to me, a lot of the way we cope with these unknowable outcomes is by saying, 'Sometimes you jump in.' And, if I don't think I'm going to die, 'Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger.'

L.A. Paul: So, and I think as you know, in the book, I also defend thinking about some of this in terms of the value of revelation. And I use that term carefully. I tend to associate it with the notion of divine revelation, but really what I mean is a kind of discovery that doesn't have to be divine, but a kind of epistemic revelation.

But--but--I think there's an extra thing here that is--I use the case of having a child, first.

And that is that, for some people it's more of an obvious possible good than others. So, I think that this is a highly gendered decision, and in the context of contemporary Western society, where at least women now tend to have the choice--right?--many of us, if we have active careers and identities that we love before we have children face, in effect, the choice of whether or not to make this discovery. And if we do make this discovery, then we have to give up significant things that we value. And I don't think that men face that choice. And--

Russ Roberts: I agree 100%.

L.A. Paul: [crosstalk 00:38:56] And so, again, I was talking about stakes, before. I think this is a kind of decision, this one in particular is much higher-stakes, often, for women than for men. And it's because that negative value can actually be there. I mean, maybe you won't care so much about your career after you become a parent. That does happen. But, if right now you do care about your career, and you care about the work that you do, and it's part of who you are, then it's not so easy to choose the path of epistemic revelation, because you're not quite sure what you're getting, and you definitely know maybe what you're giving up.

Russ Roberts: Yep, I agree.

L.A. Paul: So. There are other cases where this happens. I'm especially interested in cases of disability. In the book I talk about the case, too: If you have a child who is born, with the, basically who's physically deaf, so doesn't have anything resembling ordinary hearing, and this is discovered early on, then you'll have to make the choice of whether to provide the child with cochlear implants, which are physically largely irreversible. Or, whether to have the child become kind of a full fledged member of the deaf community.

And, the problem is: Well first of all, if you yourself are deaf and a member of the deaf community, then you know what it's like to be a member of the deaf community, but you may not know what it's like to be a member of a community, like, the sort of the people with ordinary audition capacities. And you may not be able to connect with your child in the same way if you get cochlear implants for your child. And this is a--it's ultimately, if you yourself are deaf, then it's way of, you might have to give up your child if you decide to get those cochlear implants--

Russ Roberts: You certainly give up something--

L.A. Paul: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: With respect to how you relate to your child.

L.A. Paul: Yeah. I think that deaf parents really feel like they give up some of the most, they give up the ability to really communicate with their child. And, obviously, this is incredibly important when you raise children.

On the other hand, if you aren't deaf, then you have to decide whether, again, whether you want your child to become a member of the deaf community and flourish in that way, or if you want your child to get cochlear implants. And, in many ways, some of the outcomes are better for those children, in terms of it looks like some of their career opportunities and other kinds of things turn out to be better, because they can assimilate more easily into ordinary society.

But, in other ways, it's not clear that life is better. There's a lot of ongoing research about this.

But, the real problem is that: if you're supposed to make the decision by imagining what life would be like for your child as a member of the deaf community, say, when they're 15, or 18, or 25 or whatever, and compare that to what it would be like for your child to have cochlear implants when they're 15, or 18, or whatever it is: Well, you can't possibly do that. You can't do both things.

If you're deaf, maybe you can assess what it would be like for your child to be a member of the deaf community.

If you're not deaf, maybe you can try to imaginatively assess the value of what it would be like for your child to be a member of the kind of ordinary language and hearing community.

But, one of those options is going to be inaccessible to you, in a very important way.

And so, I think if we're asking parents to make this choice and project forward, which we do--which we do do when we do think--and actually, parents think it's very important for them to be able to make that choice, and I totally get that. I would feel the same way if I were making the choice for my child.

There's also, we're putting ourselves in an impossible position if we think the right way to make that choice involves this kind of comparison. In other words, to kind of assess which outcome would maximize the expected value, or be the best along some kind of straightforward dimension.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. While I was reading that part of the book, the other point that came to mind, which you talk about, is the belief that I think is correct--that gaining hearing, or gaining sight or gaining some sensory opportunity often means a reduction in a different sensory ability. And that trade-off is, of course, unquantifiable as well. I think there's a--listeners may not know this. I know it because I've read parts of Andrew Solomon's book, Far From the Tree, and you reference it in your book. My wife read the entire book, which is quite an achievement. It's a very long book. It's an extraordinary book. It's about children who are not like their parents in every possible way you could--not every, but in a number of widely fascinating and evocative ways that make you, and raise ethical and other types of parenting questions.

And in this case, the deaf community is very much opposed to cochlear implants, because they think there's something wonderful about being deaf that I think is hard for people with hearing to relate to. But, I was struck reading about that and thinking about it that--I've raised my children in the Jewish religion as Orthodox Jews. Now, they may not all keep that habit. Unlike being deaf, they can gain hearing if they want. They can leave religion. They can raise their own children however they choose to. But, I remember very vividly telling someone that--you know, I forget. In my memory it was that we didn't let our kids do Halloween. I didn't let my kids do Halloween for a number of reasons. One of which was, I didn't like them begging, and also they might get candy that's not kosher, and Judaism has a holiday, Purim, which was about gift giving; and I thought that was different and better for us.

But, people were horrified. Non-Jews, and non-religious Jews were horrified that, 'How could you deprive your kids of that? Halloween is wonderful.'

And I think there's a similar natural reaction that people with hearing have: 'You're going to keep your kids from hearing music? How could you do that?' And the answer is: There are a lot of reasons. And it's an enormous change in culture in the West that that would be a, not just defensible, but even honorable position. Not religion, but that view of being deaf. That being deaf is just a different cultural experience. It's to be honored. It's to be experienced.

And the last thing I'm just going to add, because I think it's important and I don't want to miss it is that: Happiness is so overrated.

And I think a lot of what is challenging about these decisions is coming down to the scalar issue of measuring happiness. I don't want my children to be happy. I want them to have rich lives, which includes happiness. I don't mean miserable. But, meaning, and satisfaction, and contentment. Those are all things that--you can call them happiness if you want, but I don't think it's the right way to think about it. I think when we talk about happiness, we're thinking about the highs and lows of momentary existence. But, those are really unimportant in many ways.

I might come back to that, but why don't you react to the point I made about the deaf versus the hearing community and religion versus non-religion?

L.A. Paul: So, yes. I was thinking about all of these different things as you were speaking. I am very interested, actually, in the case of religious transformation. And in my new book, which is not published yet, I have a discussion about religious transformation, because I do think that that is also a transformative experience.

Russ Roberts: Sure. Very similar to what you're talking about.

L.A. Paul: Yes. I don't think it necessarily involves decision, but it's an experience that's epistemically and personally transformative. It may be reversible, at least in some cases, but I think it brings in interesting questions of its own.

But, I take the point that trying to understand what's best for someone, for a child, or for yourself, or for a loved one more generally doesn't always involve kind of simple things that bring happiness, but rather involve things that bring a certain kind of life satisfaction--may involve a certain amount of suffering, may involve a certain amount of difficulty. I don't think there's a straightforward calculus that we can apply.

I think the further thing, though, is that this question of evaluating quality of life is also one that I think there's a role for first-person experience here. So, just going back to the idea that sometimes testimony and description can't capture things, sometimes the testimony of others can't give you as much information as you would like about the nature and quality of their life, and that complex balance of experience and satisfaction that each of us has to grapple with. And so, we do the best we can, but there's a kind of impossible task that we set for ourselves if we're supposed to really make that judgment. And we certainly don't want to make it on some kind of superficial basis[?] as well: 'Obviously, it's better to be like everyone else along some dimension. Obviously, it's better for someone to be like me rather than to be different from me.' I just don't think that that follows.


Russ Roberts: So, now what? I want to give you my 'now what'--that your book encouraged me to think about, but I want to hear yours first.

You made the case, you make it at great length in the book and you made it here, that these are decisions that are not amenable to the standard--I would say, 'either'--they're not amenable to either the standard ways we think about decisions, or the standard ways we'd like to think we make decisions. That: 'We sit around, and we weigh the pluses and minuses, and we associate the probabilities, and we pick the one that has the highest score.' I don't think anybody makes real decisions that way. I think people like to think they do.

But, even in the abstract, you're suggesting that this is impossible. What is a person to do? How do you decide whether to have a child, whether to get married, whether to become a dentist, whether to travel, whether to live in the United States, whether to--fill in the blank--be a vampire? What have you got for me?

L.A. Paul: Well, sometimes when I get asked this question, I explain that I'm much better at asking questions than answering them, at raising problems rather than solving them. Which is awesome.

Russ Roberts: That's nice.

L.A. Paul: But, in the book, I say that I think we need to recognize the value of revelation. In other words, that we need to recognize the value of discovering the new. But, also respect someone who doesn't want to discover the new, because they value what they know now.

In other words, I want us to recognize what we can do and what we can't do. What we can know, and what we can't know. Not set ourselves impossible tasks. So, take a stance involving epistemic humility; and then, from that stance, look at what kinds of decision models we might be able to build.

And in addition, I'm a huge fan of the psychological and social sciences. I'm doing a lot of collaborative work with people at Yale, and Harvard and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] on problems that have come out of this discussion of transformative experience, because I think that recognizing what we can and can't do, just given our poor, fragile, human brains means that we need to think about the narratives that we tell ourselves a little bit more carefully. We need to think about how we apportion praise and blame, both to ourselves and to others who find themselves in these kinds of decisions and decision contexts.

We need to--I think we think some of our takes on disability, for example, we should never assume that just because someone's had a terrible accident and then testifies to the value of their new life is somehow confused or is experiencing cognitive dissonance or something like that, which I really, sorry to say, that I think sometimes I've seen that attitude kind of created.

Russ Roberts: Sure.

L.A. Paul: And, just as you were saying before, assuming that, like, living, being a member of the deaf community as a deaf member is somehow, you know, not as valuable as being in a community where you have ordinary audition.

We make these radical assumptions; and what I wanted the book to do was to raise questions that would keep us, maybe, from making such radical assumptions; and also to spend more time attending to the value of first-person experience, and not just try to step back and think about the ideal choice-maker in the ideal situation, and then quantify everything from this kind of impersonal quasi-Godlike perspective. Because that perspective, as valuable as it can be in some ways, is not the only valuable perspective.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. I want to come back to that, but I want to first suggest a solution I really like that you put forward, or at least I took it to be a solution, which is the Mediocre Chess Player. Describe what the Mediocre Chess Player is about. For me, that's sort of my model in playing the chess game of life: We're all mediocre. So, talk about that set up.

L.A. Paul: The Mediocre Chess Player is someone who can't flesh out all the details, let's say, of the game plan, or of the decision tree. So, if you were a computer playing chess, a well-developed computer maybe built by DeepMind, Google DeepMind, then for any move that you made or your player made, you'd be able to know, you'd be able to, in a sense, see all of the possible moves, all of the possible ways to both love[?] victory and defeat from any position in the game tree. Both for yourself and for your opponent, ideally.

And, if we had that kind of capacity, like, life would just be like playing a chess game, and you would make the decision based on, 'Well, this is the path I want to take the decision tree. If I move my pawn this way, my opponent will do this, and then I will do this, and then I will do this.' And we just sort of know how best to--you might have to rely on error in order to win, actually, if two computers were playing one another.

But, if you're mediocre, then you can't see that far down the decision tree.

Humans are, by definition, mediocre compared to computers. But, even if you're mediocre in the sense that you're not a grand master, so you don't have the capacity to see, you know, seven moves ahead, then the solution is instead to adopt rules to try to make the best decision given what you can see. So, maybe you can see a couple of possibilities, two or three steps down the decision tree. You think you know enough about your opponent to see what their possible moves would be like. But, you really can't go farther than that. So, instead you follow the rule that: 'Well, your queen is one of the most valuable pieces, maybe the most valuable piece.' Or, you follow some other rule, 'Well, maybe it's best to give up a pawn in exchange for, you know, a bishop.' These are rules that weaker players, in particular, tend to rely on, so that they can have a better chance of winning in the end even if they, by definition, can't really see all the options in front of them.

Russ Roberts: So, I think that level of epistemic humility, of realizing that you don't know all the moves, is a really important rule for life. It's a really important rule for Social Science, obviously, if you could tell, in my view.

But, if we just think about living, and we have alluded to this recently on the program, this idea that somehow, at 17, or 16, or even 20, a young person should map out their best possible path, and then just make it happen--I mean, I think that's increasingly what people and culture is telling young people. I think it's a horrible way to think about life.

I agree you should certainly make plans; you should make investments and decisions looking ahead. But, the idea that you can somehow figure out what you need to do to get the rest of your life on this Golden Brick Road is just a fundamental misunderstanding of what life's about. A much better attitude is: 'Let's see what happens. Let's try some new stuff. Let's experience things. I need to learn about myself.' When I'm 17, I know so little, not just about how to get from A to B. That's hopeless already. It's really hard. But, the bigger problem is that you're going to find out when you're halfway down the road, you don't want to get to B any more.

That's all related to your point about transformative experience. The most transformative experience is growing up. It's: getting older. It's learning about things you didn't know about. And the idea that somehow you should "take everything into account"--I mean, I think that's the worst sort of way that our scientific, left-brain tendencies push us. And it's a fool's game. It's wrong. It's not a good idea. Not just because, 'Oh, it's really hard to do.' It's not a good idea because that's not how to live life.

L.A. Paul: So, I agree--I agree with all of that. But, let me add: There are two ways to think about this problem. One is that, when you're 17 there's just so much that you don't know. But, it's also the case that when you're 17, you think differently from how when you're 37, or when you're 47 or when you're 87.

And so, part of it is about just getting the information; then, part of it is how you think about that information, and what you decide, and how you want to make sense of things. Both those things are changing constantly as you grow up, and as you get older.

And, maybe we are just getting better and better at thinking about things. Maybe we get better at thinking about things and then we get worse at thinking about them. There's all kinds of issues here. I would like to say that, at least for most of us, in the normal course of a life, we do get better and better about thinking about things, and understanding human weakness and human frailty, and also, like, what people can do in a way that, when you're 17, I think it's very hard.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, there's an incredible play by Edward Albee. I think it's called Three Women [Three Tall Women--Econlib Ed.] I'm going to get the details wrong, but it doesn't matter. There's three women on stage. One's, I think, about 17; one's about 40; and one's about 70. They're all the same person. And of course, the 70-year-old looks back at the 17-year-old and thinks, 'How could I have thought that way? What was I thinking?' And the 17 looks at the 70-year-old and thinks, 'There's no way I'm going to let me become that person. I'm going to be something different.'

But of course--it's similar to the way we look at our parents and we say, 'I'm going to be different.' Then you find out you're not. You're going to be a lot like them. You're genetically like them; you're culturally, environmentally like them. And you look at yourself in the mirror one day and you realize you hold your mouth the way your dad does, or the way your mom does, and you think, 'Oh, well. I guess that's the way it has to be sometimes, at least in some things.'

And then in others, of course, you're nothing like them. In fact, my view is: in parenting people emphasize modeling. Some of the things we model, our kids adopt them 100%. The other is they go 180 degrees the other direction. You know, you tell your kids 'It's great to play the violin,' and they hate the violin for the rest of their lives; they can't even stand to hear other people play the violin. And other people become great violinists. So, it's kind of tricky.

But, my point is, is that we do learn a lot as we get older. And, to emphasize your point, we're not the same person. We're different. Different values, different understanding, different everything.

L.A. Paul: I agree, and I want to add to that, especially because I think about, like, not only becoming our parents, but just becoming a parent.

So, there's the view from the outside and the view from inside. The 17-year-old looks at the 70-year-old or the 40-year-old and says, 'Oh, I don't want to be like that,' or, 'That's not me.' And also, 'I wouldn't want to be like that.' And yet, when the 17-year-old becomes the 40-year-old, and when the 40-year-old becomes the 70-year-old, from within they're like, 'I'm really happy with who I am,'--let's hope. 'This is who I am.'

And so, that's part of what I mean about there's this very interesting I think split between the first-person perspective and the third person perspective. Thomas Nagel famously wrote about it. Others have noted it.

And I guess I think that that split is not resolvable in a straightforward way; and it's that split that's at the heart of some of these problems with decision-making and decision theory. Like, failing to recognize that we have these, you know, very different ways of thinking about who we are, and what we should do, and how we should make assessments. And then trying to manage both of these perspectives, and, sometimes, trying to, kind of, having to reject one or more of these perspectives creates a lot of problems for the straightforward model that I think has not been adequately recognized, or appreciated and addressed.


Russ Roberts: So, I wanted to mention a couple things I thought you didn't talk about in the book--get your reaction--which, I was surprised you didn't talk about them. In a way, it's an answer to the question of, 'Now what?' So, we have this problem: We don't have enough information to solve it. We have to make a leap; or we have to decide not to make a leap, which is another choice. Not becoming a vampire, not having children, not leaving home, staying in your own town. Those are all different. They're still making a decision.

And we don't have the data, and we only have one lifetime. It's tragic, or at least feels that way to us. All the things we learn over the course of our life, all the regrets, all the sadnesses. You don't get to go around again and draw from the urn. So, that makes it--this would give life, I think in many ways, gives life its richness--is that it is finite; and I think that's important.

But, the way that these problems have been solved historically is through, traditionally, either norms or religion. And if you want to add[?] religion, you can add morality, and of course they all get jumbled up together. But, the idea would be, you know: Religion says you should have children. Societal norms have often said not just have children: have lots of children.

Obviously there are interesting theories about why these became norms, why religions evolved the way they did. If you don't believe in divine revelation, and you think it's just a cultural experience, then it all is the same thing. It's ways that cultures answered these problems for people so they didn't have to spend all their life agonizing over it. In the past, you wouldn't agonize over getting cochlear implants. You had, what was called in the old days, 'a disability.' You were "handicapped." That's no longer acceptable language, and it's fascinating--right?--that that's changed.

But, historically, all these things--nobody worried about these. Nobody agonized over them. They were easy. They just were done. And that change is part of the power and extraordinary nature of modernity to see ourselves as a blank slate that we can write on from scratch. And, I don't think we can; but certainly we have expanded the choices available to people and the cultural acceptability of all these choices. So, there are extraordinarily wonderful things about that, and there are costs to it. To me, it's a complicated question as to--it's not a complicated question. It's just a reality that the move away from religion, tradition, and norms as the way to solve these unanswerable questions brings a bit of angst that you've really chronicled in your book.

L.A. Paul: Yes. I think it does bring angst. Also, norms are constantly changing. We face new situations as well, like climate change or new technology that requires developing new norms. And so, we can't just follow--new choices confront us. We have much more flexibility, and we can't just follow the old norms. And, arguably, we shouldn't. Because another thing that happens is we recognize that some of those old norms really--

Russ Roberts: Were awful[?].

L.A. Paul: Were problematic or unfair. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Cruel.

L.A. Paul: Yes. And so, the question is: How do we go about--when you say, 'Well, what next?' My answer was, as before: we recognize what we don't know. And then, I mean, I am a fan of empirical research, a huge fan of empirical research, and actually of decision theory. I just think that we need to explore alternative models. And, again, know what we can't--do a better job of knowing what we can't know. So, that's my hope, is that we recognize--we do a better job of recognizing the challenges that we face, and then expand our research and our thinking, so that we can try to handle them.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a variation on the Peter Singer optimism, I think, Laurie. I'm going to accuse of saying, 'Oh, we'll get there. We just need different models.' My view is we won't. But, reasonable people can obviously disagree about this, and even view the other person as unreasonable, which you might, as Peter Singer did, I think, of my viewpoint.


Russ Roberts: But, I want to invoke something else here, and I think, again, I don't think you've talked about in your book, which is the role of morality. You touch on it a little bit.

Let me phrase it in the vampire context, because I think it's easiest there. But, it comes up in questions of, you know, career choice, and you raise that very explicitly in other work you've done. So, here's my way of thinking about it in the vampire context. You're suggesting: Well, let's suppose that all vampires are happy. They were all glad they made the choice. It's 100%. It's unanimous. You[?] would be the first to point out, I think, that there's no guarantee that you will be just like them. You might end up being the exception. But, you have a lot of, let's say it's "overwhelming evidence" that you will be happy as a vampire.

But, then again, you'll be drinking blood, let's say of humans. Let's get back to the ethical challenge. You wanted to have humanely-raised animals or synthetic; but let's say you're going to prey on human beings. It's wrong.

So, another way to look at it is that, again, even though it might make you happy, it's just wrong.

And similarly, there are careers that I think they're wonderful. They make you happy. You're rich. Whatever floats your boat. But, we usually have another outside calculus that says, 'Yeah, well, it is attractive, but you shouldn't do it.'

And you're very--what I found interesting about your arguments, and this would be similar to, say, a counterargument to say a different claim to Singer's, that you shouldn't drink too many lattes, maybe is you shouldn't have any, because you could help save children who are starving somewhere--you invoke the first-person experience, and the importance of being true to yourself. And there seems to be a lot of philosophers say, 'True to yourself? You've got to do the right thing, even if it means not being true to yourself.' So, if you need to--if you want to be, you have the opportunity to be a fabulous surgeon and instead you decide to be a plumber, shame on you! 'You could've saved so many more lives as a surgeon than as a--I mean, plumber's a fine, honest, useful, fabulous thing to be able to do, but open heart surgery's better, and you should be doing that.' How do you answer that utilitarian claim that, or moralistic claim that that first-person calculus should be overcome? 'You should just give in. That's wrong.'

L.A. Paul: First of all, I think it's totally unrealistic to eliminate the first-person and just kind of perform these. This is why, this is a real problem I think for utilitarians or for consequentialists in general, is that: If you calculate what you should do in kind of purely third-personal terms, you very quickly get into what I think of as like robot morals, where you--I mean, the straightforward thing is you'll sacrifice one human life to save two on a very simplistic calculus.

Russ Roberts: And, you never throw a birthday party for your child. Because that's cruel. Because there are children around the world who are dying of malaria, and you should be buying bed nets for them, not having a clown show up.

L.A. Paul: Exactly. And, it's not that I think that assessing these things carefully is wrong, because of course there's something very invaluable and important there.

But, I think that that type of approach just loses touch with an essential part of being human, which again I'm going to emphasize is the first-personal side of things. And, there aren't any easy and simple answers; and that by failing to take the value of first-person experience into account, that their calculus is actually missing various kinds of values for various kinds of variables. And when it goes so badly wrong with respect to some of these calculations, we can see that it's missing something.

Russ Roberts: An analogy I used, and let's see if you agree with this, and it, I think, takes your point. Let's say I hate finance: I hate investments, I hate working in a bank, an investment bank. I find it corrosive, repellent--and again, I don't mean to suggest that all people in finance feel this way or that it's true. It's not. Many things that--people who are in finance are wonderful, and it's hard to see, because it's indirect. But, let's suppose you feel that way. You just think it's not for you. You hate it, day-to-day. You used the example of a doctor who hates the sight of blood, doesn't enjoy being a doctor, a would-be doctor. Hates the sight of blood, doesn't enjoy the practice of medicine. And, the case of the finance investment banker.

But, you can take all this money and give it to charity. And my view is, is that--or give 90% of it to charity. That's fundamentally turning you into a slave.

There's something antihuman about--you know, there's one side of the morality that says, 'Yeah, you should overcome your dislike of blood. You should try to enjoy medicine.' Or, 'You should think about the good things that finance does. Sure, day-to-day you might find it tedious and boring to run these physics-based algorithms.' But, at the same time, if you hate it, and you can't overcome it, it seems to me you've sapped the humanity out of this human being that you're claiming you're trying to help them act morally, but there's something fundamentally immoral about that calculus.

L.A. Paul: Yeah. Again, I think what's happened with some of these approaches, both the decision theory and consequentialism and utilitarianism, is there's been an explicit emphasis on this kind of impersonal, kind of quasi-scientific, so called scientific point of view, emphasizing the kind of mathematical quantitative side of decision-making--which of course is important, and should be there--but, forgetting about the role of experience and value, and the complexity that we face, with respect to evaluating what it means to live a good life.

And, for example, in a sense it's captured by the paradox of choosing suffering. People can say that a life filled with suffering is actually more valuable for them. And, I think that to adequately explain that, let's say for someone who wants to try to reduce things to quantifiable characterizations, there's a little bit--it becomes very difficult. It becomes very , I think, strained and contorted.

If we are willing to take in the value of first-person experience, of the way that we live our lives, trying to be authentic, trying to recognize that there can be value in experiencing color, and art, and beauty, and that not be able just to reduce that to some kind of person or human-independent or individual-independent number, and then make a kind of cross-category comparison--for example, comparing one human life to three human lives, and assuming there has to be something constant across them so that we can make a choice about which is more ultimately valuable to preserve--then, we get into these problems right away.

I don't want to underestimate the importance of facing these kinds of questions. I think we have to sometimes quantify things. We have to make hard decisions, and sometimes we have to make these hard decisions without all the information that we'd like to have.

The point is, rather, that you have to recognize that this part is missing, and it's of value. And, if it's of value and we can't have it, then we need to try to find some kind of alternative thing. Not dismiss its importance, or think that because you care about the first-person, or you care about authenticity, or these hard-to-quantify human emotions that you're somehow weak, or soft, or fuzzy-headed, or immoral. I think that's actually, like, the view of the quasi-scientistic, you know, 20th century, logical positivist rather than anything else. I think that's a kind of, a childish desire to keep everything precise and pristine, and stick with the math, because the really hard stuff--the morality, and the kind of experience, and the aesthetic character of things and the squishiness of real value--that's, there are no easy answers there. There may not be any answers.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Laurie Paul. Her book is Transformative Experience. Laurie, thanks for being part of EconTalk.