You are on a good path in life when you do your true will (what you truly want), leading you towards eudaimonia (long-term well-being). Your rational true will aims at a goal and listens to reason, which calculates the outcome probabilities of actions. You use reason to estimate how potential actions will affect eudaimonia, and then you choose the path of action with the most desirable consequences. This is how you make good life decisions, right? Well, not quite…
The problem of rational foresight
Idealistically, doing your true will means doing what you would want to do if you had perfect foresight and self-knowledge. But you never have perfect foresight. While you might get to know yourself very well, you cannot know the future. Hence, the information you gather and the predictions you calculate to make an informed, rational decision are always inadequate. This is the problem of limited rational foresight. Let’s look at two examples.
Case 1: Become a revolutionary?
Imagine you live under the rule of an oppressive yet stable regime and you have two options:
- Conform. You keep your head down, withhold your opinions, and subordinate yourself to the powerful. At the cost of political freedom, you’ll likely become a successful opportunist with a fulling job who rises high in social status, gains access to wealth and women, and establishes a secure environment for his family.
- Revolt. You detest the idea of submitting to a political power, so you decide to fight for freedom. You might lead a glorious revolution, but more likely you’ll be tortured to death for opposing the powerful.
Although opportunism is the path most people would choose, you are, if you live in a Western country, culturally conditioned feel moral disgust at the choice to conform. You revere the courage to fight for autonomy and freedom of expression, which are fundamental values in the Western world. Keep in mind, however, that blindly adhering to cultural values is itself a form of conformism.
In a sense, the revolutionary is a value dogmatist who sticks to his principles no matter what. But values and principles are only heuristics for increasing eudaimonia, whereas the true will is what actually increases eudaimonia. Clinging to acquired heuristics is certainly less rational than estimating outcome probabilities. So, since the opportunist will likely build himself a relatively happy life whereas the revolutionary will likely be tortured and killed, isn’t conforming to the government the rational choice?
Case 2: Become an innovator?
Imagine you just finished high school and you have to choose one of two general career paths:
- Conform. You go to college to study law, medicine, business administration, or engineering.1 You become a successful lawyer, doctor, manager, or engineer who’ll likely make a lot of money, attain high social status, high value in the sexual marketplace, start a family, provide for it, and live an overall happy life.
- Innovate. You study whatever you find most interesting or skip college altogether to follow your passion as an entrepreneur, artist, philosopher, theoretical physicist, or esoteric mathematician. You might become a billionaire, superstar, or legendary genius, but more likely all your creative ideas will fail and you’ll end up never reaching the success of your survivorship-biased dreams.
Again, while you probably don’t feel passionate about the conformist choice because you’re culturally conditioned to admire the exceptional, most people choose to conform anyway. Following a well-trodden career path is simpler and less risky than investing years of your life in an original path that will probably reach an exasperating impasse. So, since the person who conforms to a preexisting path will likely live a more successful life than the person who tries to innovate a new path, isn’t a traditionally promising career the rational choice?
Solution: Inner Compass
To repeat, the problem of rational foresight is that you want to do what maximizes eudaimonia while you can’t know what will maximize it because you don’t know the future.
In the two cases above, the rational choice seems to be to conform and to not take the risk of doing something exceptional. But is this what you truly want? Does the best probable outcome fully determine your true will? Does your will have no inner compass—akin to faithful conviction—that can guide you on the good path without making you irrational or dogmatic?
As it turns out, your will does have an inner compass. It is part of your deep true will and consists of at least five types of emotion that deeply affect your self-concept:
- Sense of purpose. The stronger your sense of purpose, maybe also responsibility2 (to revolt or innovate), the more willing you are to suffer for your purpose on a non-conformist path. The negativity of stress, pain, failure, and maybe even death can be dwarfed by the positivity of an invigorating purpose driving you towards self-actualization.
- Importance of belonging. Every decision you make is bound to a social context. Whatever path you choose, it always brings you closer to some group(s) of people and distances you from others. Your sense of belonging shapes your self-identity and well-being during all your rational goal pursuits, especially when you lack it or when your social environment is depressing. Even more, your degree of social self-transcendence, associated with feelings of love and loyalty, shapes your experience of meaning in life (eudaimonia in the strict sense).
- Lust for risk-taking. The higher your lust for risk-taking, associated with testosterone, the more driven you feel to take a dangerous path. Chronically suppressing that drive diminishes your sense of authenticity (free self-expression) and thus your well-being.
- Feeling of regret. The more intensely you feel regret about what you might have been able to accomplish on a riskier path, the less happy you will be on a mediocre path. The negative emotion of regret can spoil many pleasures of a successful conformist life and lastingly damage your self-respect. Regret, which sometimes manifests as resentment, also indicates that you are, metaphorically speaking, in conflict with your own destiny.
- Source of pride. Would you feel authentic pride more if you walked your own path and nobody saw it or if you walked a known path and were cheered on by others? The way you experience pride (intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation) determines how good you feel about what you do, thereby shaping your overall self-esteem.
Your inner emotional compass aligns with the level of well-being you experience as you walk on your path. This level of well-being, contingent on desires and self-schemas, matters just as much as for total eudaimonia as the eventual consequences of your decisions.3 It follows that there need not be a conflict between rational predictions and emotional intuitions. In fact, the problem of rational foresight necessitates an emotional compass for making good decisions in life.4
- How to Live a Good Life by Doing Your True Will
- On Faith and Risk-Taking (Shallow Vs. Deep True Will)
- Are Consequences All That Matter? (Intentions Vs. Outcomes)
- These are just examples and I don’t mean to say that people in these fields aren’t innovative. Of course, someone with a traditional career can be highly creative in his job. What I’m saying is that the nature of his career path isn’t innovative.
- The problem with feelings of responsibility, conscience, duty, etc. is that while honor, moral status, and social recognition clearly influence decision making and overall eudaimonia, their worth beyond that influence comes from value dogmatism, which goes against rationality. In addition, the possibility of duty becoming a source of purpose itself (e.g., passionate caring for one’s tribe and family) adds a further layer of complexity.
- Of course, self-schemas and anticipation of emotions like pride and regret are all part of the consequences themselves. The difference between estimated outcomes and your inner compass is that the latter affects eudaimonia already during goal pursuit. This relates to the idea of enjoying the process.
- In neuroscientific terms, rational decision making, processed in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), requires emotional input, processed in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC); see, for example, the somatic marker hypothesis, Dunn et al. (2008), The somatic marker hypothesis: A critical evaluation, and Verweij et al. (2015), Emotion, rationality, and decision-making: how to link affective and social neuroscience with social theory.