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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Transformative experience and the right to revelatory autonomy

Farbod Akhlaghi
Originally Published: 31 December 2022


Sometimes it is not us but those to whom we stand in special relations that face transformative choices: our friends, family or beloved. A focus upon first-personal rational choice and agency has left crucial ethical questions regarding what we owe to those who face transformative choices largely unexplored. In this paper I ask: under what conditions, if any, is it morally permissible to interfere to try to prevent another from making a transformative choice? Some seemingly plausible answers to this question fail precisely because they concern transformative experiences. I argue that we have a distinctive moral right to revelatory autonomy grounded in the value of autonomous self-making. If this right is outweighed then, I argue, interfering to prevent another making a transformative choice is permissible. This conditional answer lays the groundwork for a promising ethics of transformative experience.


Ethical questions regarding transformative experiences are morally urgent. A complete answer to our question requires ascertaining precisely how strong the right to revelatory autonomy is and what competing considerations can outweigh it. These are questions for another time, where the moral significance of revelation and self-making, the competing weight of moral and non-moral considerations, and the sense in which some transformative choices are more significant to one’s identity and self-making than others must be further explored.

But to identify the right to revelatory autonomy and duty of revelatory non-interference is significant progress. For it provides a framework to address the ethics of transformative experience that avoids complications arising from the epistemic peculiarities of transformative experiences. It also allows us to explain cases where we are permitted to interfere in another’s transformative choice and why interference in some choices is harder to justify than others, whilst recognizing plausible grounds for the right to revelatory autonomy itself in the moral value of autonomous self-making. This framework, moreover, opens novel avenues of engagement with wider ethical issues regarding transformative experience, for example concerning social justice or surrogate transformative choice-making. It is, at the very least, a view worthy of further consideration.

This reasoning applies to psychologists in psychotherapy.  Unless significant danger is present, psychologists need to avoid intrusive advocacy, meaning pulling autonomy away from the patient.  Soft paternalism can occur in psychotherapy, when trying to avoid significant harm.