Ethics & Uncertainty

Ethics & Uncertainty Workshop, 04-06-2016, Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

On the 4th of June a host of philosophers from across the world came together to discuss the topic of uncertainty in relation to ethics. Although the workshop’s location was slightly ominous (as it was at the former prison on the Långholmen island in Stockholm) the atmosphere of the congregation was open and accommodating. Everyone was here to constructively and collectively think about uncertainty as one of the more challenging topics facing ethicists. Among the topics we addressed were how to properly evaluate the values we hold, how to judge our decisions in the prospect of extreme events, and how we go about assigning a value to an increase in our chances of success in our decisions. I will briefly discuss some of the content of the discussions on these topics below.

On the basis of the talk by Seth Lazar we discussed when aggregation of interests is permissible or impermissible. When choosing between options where an agent or a minority has to suffer as a consequence of choosing to satisfy a more weighty or more universal claim of other agents or a majority, the question can be asked: how big may this sacrifice be in light of the gain we predict to get? In conjunction with this question we also touched upon how it might be appropriate for an agent to retract her claim if the opposing claim is sufficiently weighty. In addition we discussed how we can make sure one option is (either objectively or subjectively) better than another, because often this is in itself uncertain.

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

Another interesting point came up in a discussion on how to deal with risks associated with extreme events. In this talk by Sven-Ove Hansson he suggested that a process of ‘hypothetical retrospection’ might be appropriate when weighing our options; a method in which we place ourselves in the shoes of our future selves and imagine how we would look back on all the possible decisions we could have made, in order to assess how we might or might not want live with the consequences of our decisions and actions. The crux of this analysis is to see whether we would have chosen the same option as ‘fitting’ with our values at the original moment in time to foresee any possible regret. Problematic in hypothetical retrospection might be that, psychologically speaking, as time progresses human beings can become satisfied with whichever decision they would have made. Coping mechanisms could be at work over time that would allow for an agent to come to terms with her decision. The agent could also have difficulty imagining how the future self assesses the moment of decision or the possible outcomes.

We also looked into how humans might value chances depending on how much ‘good’ they achieve or how close the chances might move us towards our objectives in reflecting on the talk by Orri Steffanson. Decision theory generally assumes that human beings care equally about an increase in chances in a variety of scenarios, irrespective of the circumstances. As long as chances increase by the same amount, say by 0.1 be it from 0.5 to 0.6 or 0.9 to 1 in different scenarios, this increase should be of equal import. However an alternative evaluation of chance increase was presented where humans might value an increase in chance more the closer it brings us to ‘certain success’ or moves us away from ‘certain failure’. In this second evaluative framework the mid-range options, e.g. where we enhance a 0.5 chance to a 0.6 chance, is then judged as less important than a 0.9 to 1 increase. This is not to say that one evaluative framework is right or wrong or even better or worse, it is just to say that some individuals might be driven by a pure increase in chances irrespective of whether it brings us even close to reaching our goals, whereas others are driven by a view that values the chances that bring us closest to our objectives more in comparison to the chances that ‘only’ increase our chances in the mid-range of options where we are not close to success or failure.

Even though climate change was not the central topic in this workshop, issues associated with uncertainty that were brought up can be applied all the same. On the question of the permissibility of aggregation one might for example say that it is permissible or even required for the more developed countries to retract their claims to resources (be it emissions or money) in the face of the less developed countries and their claims to development. We might want to use hypothetical retrospection in climate change policy-making when we consider the impact of values on which we base our decisions; what possible futures will upholding values like ‘maximising utility’ or ‘moderation’ lead to and would we be able to live with these decisions in retrospect? Lastly the point of differing frameworks for evaluating chances might have an impact on which issues we choose to address over others and the frameworks can

A view of the Långholmen island

A view of the Långholmen island

uncover this bias. Hypothetically speaking: if a policy strategy that increases our chances from 0.9 to 1 of stopping floods in an area were to cost the same as investing in a 0.1 increase in our chances from 0.5 to 0.6 for mitigating methane emissions, the former option could grasp the policy makers’ attention over the latter. The problem here is that this bias does not necessarily reflect how important addressing the respective issues is in comparison.

This workshop has made me realise once more that we have many challenges on our hands when it comes to uncertainty in tackling climate change. Not only do we have to decide how to approach predictive uncertainties in the climate sciences, which can be seen as a ‘classical’ climate change uncertainty. We also have to deal with the uncertainty of whether we will be able to live with (governance) choices we make in the future, whether we believe we have upheld the right values and whether we chose the ‘right odds’ when choosing policy strategies.

By Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar