Choosing for Changing Selves

Project Details



To finish researching and write a 60,000 word research monograph called Choosing for Changing Selves. This monograph, for which Oxford University Press has solicited a full proposal, will offer the first systematic and extended treatment of a major shortcoming of the theory of rational choice employed by economists, psychologists, and philosophers. It will also offer the first comprehensive solution to that shortcoming.

The challenge

Here is the challenge to decision theory that we will address. What you value and the extent to which you value it changes over the course of your life. I might currently greatly value pursuing philosophy, and value spending time in nature much less; but, watching my parents as they grow older, and noting that I am very much like them, I might have good reason to think that I will value the pursuit of philosophy much less when I am seventy, and value spending time in nature much more. Given that we make our decisions on the basis of what we believe and what we value, the fact that the latter may change throughout our lives poses a problem for decision-making. To which values should I appeal when I make a decision now? My current values? My future values? My past values? Some amalgamation of them all, perhaps with some given more weight than others? Orthodox decision theory offers no answers. It proceeds on the assumption that what we value does not change. In this book, I will provide the first comprehensive account of rational decision-making for agents who recognize that what they value will change over time.

Outline of the book The book will begin with the problem described in full generality: how should we make decisions when we know that what we value changes? I will then focus on this question as an objection to orthodox decision theory in the form of expected utility theory. Treating the problem this way allows me to use the formalism
of expected utility theory to describe with mathematical precision the putative solutions I consider; but it also requires me to interrogate the philosophical foundations of that formalism, which I will do. I will then consider two putative solutions to the problem. The first suggests our fundamental values don’t change at all: at all times, we value getting what we want; what changes is what gets us what we want (Nagel, 1978). The second putative solution appeals to our second-order values – i.e. how much we value having certain values (Ullmann-Margalit, 2006). I will argue neither works. I will then turn to the task of building my own original solution. My task is to say, for a given time in my life, how I should combine the different ways I value things at different times in my life (encoded in our local utility functions at these different times) into a single set of values (encoded in our global utility function for the time in question) that I then use to make decisions at that time. I note that this task is akin to other situations where we wish to aggregate the judgments of a group of individuals, such when we aggregate the judgments of climate scientists to give the scientific community’s judgment on, say, future sea level. This will lead me to follow the most popular aggregation method in these other areas, and take our global utility functions to be weighted averages of our local utility functions. That raises the question: how should we assign the weightings? The major work of the book will be spent surveying possible answers to this question, assessing their strengths and
weaknesses, and formulating the correct account. The final chapter will consider a challenge to my proposed solution: what if my future selves differ not only in what they value but also in other attitudes that are relevant to decision-making, such as attitudes to risk or attitudes to maximizing vs satisficing? In response, I will give a
detailed account of how we might extend my proposal to accommodate agents who change their attitudes to risk. This is the book's argument in outline. The details remain to be filled in on the basis of research carried out in the first eight months of this project. The book will be written in the remaining four months.


My research for this book will be characterized by the wide and cross-disciplinary range of literature from which I wil draw. This includes the technical microeconomics literature (representation theorems; revealed preference theory), less technical literature on rational choice (interpersonal/intrapersonal utility comparisons),
literature in theory of action (Bratman on self-governance and diachronic continence), ethics (Korsgaard on the unity of the self, and voluntarism about values; Harman on reproductive ethics), Existentialism (Sartre and Heidegger on constructing the self through choosing values), to name only a few. One of the challenges of the book will be to bring these different literatures together in a way that is accessible to the wide range of scholars interested in issues of rational choice, viz., philosophers, psychologists, economists.

The existing literature

Although the literature on which I will draw for different aspects of this project is large and cross-disciplinary, the literature that directly addresses the central problem is currently rather small. The problem was considered by Derek Parfit (Part Two, 1984), Thomas Nagel (Chapter VIII, 1978), Philip Bricker (1980) in the
1970s and 1980s; and by Edna Ullmann-Margalit (2006), Krister Bykvist (2006), Dennis McKerlie (2007), Elizabeth Harman (2009) in the mid-2000s. Then, since the publication of L. A. Paul’s Transformative Experience (2014), there has been a large increase in interest, including a book symposium in Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research (to which I contributed) and a special issue of Res Philosophica devoted to Paul’s challenge.

The book's contribution

The book is distinctive and novel in three ways: (1) It provides the first comprehensive theory of choosing for changing selves. (2) It provides the first book-length positive proposal of any sort. (3) It aims to address an unusually wide and cross-disciplinary range of scholars.

Layman's description

What you value and how much you value it changes during your life. Given that we make our decisions on the basis of what we believe and what we value, the fact that the latter may change poses a problem for decisionmaking. To which values should I appeal when I make a decision? My present values? Past? Future? Some weighted combination of them? Orthodox decision theory offers no answer. The outcome of this project will be a research monograph in which I provide the first comprehensive account of rational decision-making for agents who recognize that what they value will change.
Effective start/end date1/09/1731/12/18


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