We have a moral duty to allow others to make ‘transformative choices’ such as changing careers, migrating and having children, a new study argues. This duty can be outweighed by competing moral considerations such as preventing murder but in many cases we should interfere with far greater caution.
If you’ve told an adult friend or family member that they should not take a job, not date someone, not try skydiving or not move abroad, you may have violated a crucial moral right to ‘revelatory autonomy’ and ‘self-authorship’, according to a philosopher at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge.
Dr Farbod Akhlaghi’s study, published in the journal Analysis, is the first of its kind to suggest that we have a moral right to ‘revelatory autonomy’, that is the right to discover for ourselves who we’ll become as a result of making ‘transformative choices’, choices to have experiences that teach us what that experience will be like for us whilst also changing our core preferences, values and desires.
Dr Akhlaghi says: “The ability to see that the person we’ve become is the product of decisions that we made for ourselves is very important.
“I’m not telling people what to do. I’m just highlighting part of what is morally at stake in these very common interactions and trying to develop a framework for us to understand them. I hope some may find this helpful, as these will always be difficult moments for all of us.”
Traditionally, philosophers interested in ‘transformative experiences’ have focused on the decision-maker not on the people who are in a position to influence that person’s choices. But Dr Akhlaghi thinks that these neglected interactions present ‘an urgent ethical challenge’:
“There are lots of different reasons why we might seek to intervene – some selfish, others well meaning – but whatever our motivation, we can cause significant harm, including to the people we love most.”
While Akhlaghi accepts that advice can be offered without crossing the moral line, he warns that it is all too easy to slip into various forms of interference, such as forcing, coercing, manipulating or even ‘rationally persuading’ someone away from a transformative choice, in ways that may violate their right to revelatory autonomy.
Akhlaghi says: “Rational persuasion is probably the most common form of interference. Giving, when asked, factual information about a choice that you have knowledge about and the other person does not, can be justified. But while rational persuasion respects someone’s ability to reason, even this form of engagement can involve disrespecting their autonomous self-authorship.
For example, Akhlaghi continues: “Offering reasons, arguments or evidence as if one is in a privileged position with respect to what the other person’s experience would be like for them disrespects their moral right to revelatory autonomy.”
Initially inspired to consider this area of moral philosophy by personal experiences, Dr Akhlaghi examines and rejects a number of other conditions under which it could be argued that trying to prevent someone from making transformative choices is morally justified.
Dissuading someone from becoming a parent because you think parenthood would make their life worse is problematic because becoming a parent is a positive experience for some and not for others, and no one can know that outcome in advance, even if the person doing the dissuading has experienced being a parent themselves.
A different example in the study relates to dissuading someone from making a career change that involves a big pay cut because you think that they would struggle to afford their expensive tastes. This is just as problematic, Akhlaghi says, because:
“We can only know what the future person’s interests are and whether their present interests will be fulfilled after a transformative choice has been made.”
“The person who changes job might manage to afford their expensive tastes and we don’t even know if that future person would still have these tastes. This highlights another problem – whose interests matter morally when trying to justify interfering: those of the present or the future person?”
Is it ever right to interfere?
“It is only permissible to interfere to try to prevent a transformative choice,” Akhlaghi argues “if someone’s right to revelatory autonomy is outweighed by competing moral considerations.”
A would-be killer’s right to revelatory autonomy is, for instance, plausibly outweighed by the wrongness of killing others solely to discover who they would become by doing so. Equally, protecting a friend from gratuitous self-mutilation would plausibly outweigh their right to autonomously discover what it would be like to harm themselves in this way.
Akhlaghi suggests that the more likely it is that a choice will affect someone’s ‘core preferences, identity and values’, the stronger the moral reasons would need to be to justify interfering in their decision. For instance, interfering in someone’s decision to go to university or not, would require far stronger moral reasons than them choosing whether to eat a cheeseburger or not.
Finally, Akhlaghi clarifies that his study concerns voluntary choices to have ‘transformative experiences.’ Some such experiences are instead either the unintended consequences of something we did, or ones we are forced into as, for example, children might be by a divorce. These raise different but related problems he hopes to explore in future work.
Farbod Akhlaghi, Transformative experience and the right to revelatory autonomy, Analysis (2022), DOI: 10.1093/analys/anac084
Tom Almeroth-Williams, Communications Manager (Research), University of Cambridge: firstname.lastname@example.org / tel: +44 (0) 7540 139 444