Tag Archives: moral philosophy

John Broome

[D]espite what our intuition tells us, changes in the world’s population are not generally neutral. They are either a good thing or a bad thing. But it is uncertain even what form a correct theory of the value of population would take. In the area of population, we are radically uncertain. We do not know what value to set on changes in the world’s population. If the population shrinks as a result of climate change, we do not know how to evaluate that change. Yet we have reason to think that changes in population may be one of the most morally significant effects of climate change. The small chance of catastrophe may be a major component in the expected value of harm caused by climate change, and the loss of population may be a major component of the badness of catastrophe.

How should we cope with this new, radical sort of uncertainty? Uncertainty was the subject of chapter 7. That chapter came up with a definitive answer: we should apply expected value theory. Is that not the right answer now? Sadly it is not, because our new sort of uncertainty is particularly intractable. In most cases of uncertainty about value, expected value theory simply cannot be applied.

When an event leads to uncertain results, expected value theory requires us first to assign a value to each of the possible results it may lead to. Then it requires us to calculate the weighted average value of the results, weighted by their probabilities. This gives us the event’s expected value, which we should use in our decision-making.

Now we are uncertain about how to value the results of an event, rather than about what the results will be. To keep things simple, let us set aside the ordinary sort of uncertainty by assuming that we know for sure what the results of the event will be. For instance, suppose we know that a catastrophe will have the effect of halving the world’s population. Our problem is that various different moral theories of value evaluate this effect differently. How might we try to apply expected value theory to this catastrophe?

We can start by evaluating the effect according to each of the different theories of value separately; there is no difficulty in principle there. We next need to assign probabilities to each of the theories; no doubt that will be difficult, but let us assume we can do it somehow. We then encounter the fundamental difficulty. Each different theory will value the change in population according to its own units of value, and those units may be incomparable with one another. Consequently, we cannot form a weighted average of them.

For example, one theory of value is total utilitarianism. This theory values the collapse of population as the loss of the total well-being that will result from it. Its unit of value is well-being. Another theory is average utilitarianism. It values the collapse of population as the change of average well-being that will result from it. Its unit of value is well-being per person. We cannot take a sensible average of some amount of well-being and some amount of well-being per person. It would be like trying to take an average of a distance, whose unit is kilometers, and a speed, whose unit is kilometers per hour. Most theories of value will be incomparable in this way. Expected value theory is therefore rarely able to help with uncertainty about value.

So we face a particularly intractable problem of uncertainty, which prevents us from working out what we should do. Yet we have to act; climate change will not wait while we sort ourselves out. What should we do, then, seeing as we do not know what we should do? This too is a question for moral philosophy.

Even the question is paradoxical: it is asking for an answer while at the same time acknowledging that no one knows the answer. How to pose the question correctly but unparadoxically is itself a problem for moral philosophy.

John Broome, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, New York, 2012

Alastair Norcross

Since, according to maximizing utilitarianism, any act that fails to maximize is wrong, there appears to be no place for actions that are morally admirable but not required, and agents will often be required to perform acts of great self-sacrifice. This gives rise to the common charge that maximizing utilitarianism is too demanding. […] How should a utilitarian respond to this line of criticism? One perfectly respectable response is simply to deny the claims at the heart of it. We might insist that morality really is very demanding, in precisely the way utilitarianism says it is. But doesn’t this fly in the face of common sense? Well, perhaps it does, but so what? Until relatively recently, moral “common sense” viewed women as having an inferior moral status to men, and some racs as having an inferior status to others. These judgments were not restricted to the philosophically unsophisticated. Such illustrious philosophers as Aristotle and Hume accepted positions of this nature. Many utilitarians (myself included) believe that the interests of sentient non-human animals should be given equal consideration in moral decisions with the interests of humans. This claims certainly conflicts with the “common sense” of many (probably most) humans, and many (perhaps most) philosophers. It should not, on that account alone, be rejected.

Alastair Norcross, ‘The Scalar Approach to Utilitarianism’, in Henry R. West (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Mill’s Utilitarianism, Malden, Massachusetts, 2006, p. 218

Robin Hanson

When large regions of one’s data are suspect and for that reason given less credence, even complex curves will tend to look simpler as they are interpolated across such suspect regions. In general, the more error one expects in one’s intuitions (one’s data, in the curve-fitting context), the more one prefers simpler moral principles (one’s curves) that are less context-dependent. This might, but need not, tip the balance of reflective equilibrium so much that we adopt very simple and general moral principles, such as utilitarianism. This might not be appealing, but if we really distrust some broad set of our moral intuitions, this may be the best that we can do.

Robin Hanson, ‘Why Health is not Special: Errors in Evolved Bioethics Intuitions’, Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer, 2002), p. 179

Frances Kamm

I always am surprised when people say, ‘Oh that was a nice discussion. That was fun.’ I think, ‘Fun? Fun? This is a serious matter!’ You try and try to get the right account of the moral phenomena in such cases as the Trolley Case, and getting it right is just as important as when you are doing an experiment in natural science, or any other difficult intellectual undertaking. If we worked on a NASA rocket, and it launched well, we wouldn’t say, ‘Well that was fun!’ It was aweinspiring, that’s the right way of putting it!

Frances Kamm, ‘In Search of the Deep Structure of Morality’, Imprints, vol. 9, no. 2 (2006), pp. 93-117

Allen Wood

Analytical philosophers often aim at producing moral principles that may be very complex in structure, full of subclauses and qualifications, because these principles enable them to capture “our moral intuitions” and the precisely worded epicyclic subclauses enable us to deal cleverly with threatened counterexamples of various kinds. […] But the resulting principles often do more to disguise than to state the fundamental value basis on which decisions are to be made.

Allen Wood, ‘The Supreme Principle of Morality’, in Paul Guyer (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, Cambridge, 2006, p. 346

Carlos Santiago Nino

[L]a filosofía moral tiene marcada relevancia moral: en la medida en que ella se proponga esclarecer las reglas constitutivas de una institución que satisface ciertas funciones sociales sumamente valiosas, se fortalecerá la operatividad y eficacia de esa institución, puesto que los que pariticipan en ella (todos nosotros cuando discurrimos acerca de la justificación de una acción o institución) tendrán una visión más perspicua del “juego” que practican y lo harán mejor. Esto no sirve, obviamente, para justificar sin circularidad la moral y la filosofía moral, pero, como nuestra conciencia no tiene demasiados escrúpulos lógicos, sirve al menos para que ella esté tranquila mientras nosotros nos dedicamos a esta acividad en vez de encarar alguna otra obra más obviamente benéfica.

Carlos Santiago Nino, El constructivismo ético, Madrid, 1989, p. 71