Workshop: Population Ethics and Uncertainty

7-8th December 2018, Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm.



December 7 (Friday)

Hilary Greaves (Global Priorities Institute, Oxford) 

"A Bargaining-Theoretic Approach to Moral Uncertainty"

Abstract: The question of moral uncertainty is roughly "what should I do when I am uncertain what, morally speaking, I ought to do?" Existing work attempting to answer this question mostly takes its lead from decision theory (hence the "maximise expected choiceworthiness" approach) or, occasionally, voting theory. A third thing that seems in principle natural to try is bargaining theory. My talk will investigate what a bargaining-theoretic approach to the question of moral uncertainty would look like. One might initially be optimistic that this kind of approach can capture the successes of extant approaches without their corresponding failures. My tentative conclusion in this talk, however, is that a bargaining-theoretic approach ends up looking (i) very similar to but (ii) where different, slightly inferior to a particular version of the "maximise expected choiceworthiness" approach.

Krister Bykvist (IF and Stockholm University)

"Intertheoretical Comparisons of Value"

Abstract: One obvious problem with applying theories of population ethics to pressing practical problems, such as climate change, is that we are not sure how to evaluate population changes. Since climate change and many other pressing real-life problems need an urgent response, we need to think hard about how to act under this kind of evaluative uncertainty. One of the biggest hurdles for taking evaluative uncertainty seriously is to explain how we can make comparisons of value across theories. In this talk, I will argue for an account of intertheoretical comparisons of value that invokes value magnitudes (which are analogous to empirical magnitudes such as lengths, masses, and velocities). When we say that the value of a population is greater according to one theory than it is according to another, we should take this literally: we are comparing the value assigned to the population by the first theory with the value assigned to the population by the other theory. I will also say something about cases where this kind of comparison is impossible. I tentatively argue that for these cases it is possible to rely on comparisons analogous to intercategory comparisons, such as ‘this knife is a better knife than Trump is a president’ and ‘my daughter and I differ more in height than we do in temperature’.

Gustaf Arrhenius (IF) and Orri Stefansson (IF)

"Population Ethics Under Risk"

Abstract: Population axiology concerns how to evaluate populations in terms of their moral goodness, that is, how to order populations by the relations “is better than” and “is as good as”. The task has been to find an adequate theory about the moral value of states of affairs where the number of people, the quality of their lives, and their identities may vary. So far, this field has mainly ignored issues about uncertainty. Many public policy choices, however, are decisions under uncertainty, including policies which affect the size of a population. Here, we shall address the question of how to rank population prospects, that is, alternatives that contain uncertainty as to which population they will bring about, by the relations “is better than” and “is as good as”. We start by showing how some well-known population axiologies can be extended to population prospect axiologies. We then identify an intuitive adequacy conditions that, we contend, should be satisfied by any satisfactory population prospect axiology. We show how given this condition, the impossibility theorems in population axiology can be extended to impossibility theorems for population prospect axiology. Hence, as with much work in population ethics, the results of this paper are largely negative.

Melinda Roberts (The College of New Jersey)

"Fertility and Nonidentity: When Does a Choice Create a Better Chance of Existence?"

Abstract: We should agree that, in some cases, a better chance of an existence worth having makes things (morally) better.  One purpose of this paper is to locate where a better chance of an existence worth having makes things better.  (Does a better chance of existence make a given future better?  A given choice?  A given prospect?)  A second purpose is to explore the implications distinct answers to that question will generate.  A third purpose is to propose a person-based principle that claims that the better chance of existence may make a choice permissible (“better” in the sense that that same choice would otherwise be wrong) without making the future in which that choice is made better.  A fourth purpose is to argue that, once we understand the probabilities involved, such a principle nicely avoids the nonidentity problem in the form that problem takes in the context of climate ethics.   

December 8 (Saturday)

Franz Dietrich (Paris School of Economics)

“Decision Under Normative Uncertainty”

Abstract: How should one evaluate options when uncertain about the correct standard of evaluation, perhaps due to conflicting normative intuitions? Such 'normative' uncertainty differs from ordinary 'empirical' uncertainty about the state of nature, and raises new challenges for decision theory and ethics. The most prominent proposal is: form the expected value of options, relative to correctness probabilities of competing valuations. We show that the expected-value theory is just one of four natural expectation-based theories, with different risk attitudes. The ordinary expected-value theory is neutral to normative risk, whereas its attitude to empirical risk is impartial, i.e., guided by the risk attitudes of the competing valuations. The three new theories are, respectively, neutral to both types of risk; impartial to both types of risk; or neutral to empirical but impartial to normative risk. We conditionally defend the theory which is impartial to all risk – the impartial value theory – on the grounds that it respects risk-attitudinal judgments all the way rather than imposing neutrality to risk of one or both types. We back our argument up by formal results. Meanwhile, we show how one can address empirical and normative uncertainty within a unified framework, and rigorously define risk attitudes of theories.

Signe Saven (Lund University)

“Uncertainty and Policy-Making about the Far Future”

Abstract: We influence the future in a number of ways. Our actions affect whether there will be future people, and if so, the number and identities of these people, as well as what kind of world they inherit. Several philosophers have argued for the overwhelming importance of shaping the far future. However, a relatively small amount of resources and political attention are spent towards analyzing what policies about the far future to adopt.

Deciding what far future policies to adopt is a complex endeavor, riddled with both normative and empirical uncertainty. Richard Bradley and Mareile Drechsler (2013) introduce a taxonomy of uncertainty ranging over three dimensions – nature (e.g. empirical and normative uncertainty), object and severity – and argue that it is often possible to reduce uncertainty with regard to nature and object, but only at the expense of severity. I aim to evaluate this account and explore its implications for decision making about the far future.

Hili Razinsky (University of Lisbon)

“Ambivalence, Judgement and Action”

Abstract: A person is ambivalent if she has opposing attitudes towards the same thing, such that she holds them as opposed. She may judge something is good and yet is not, want and not want it, hope for it and fear it. Ambivalence is as relevant to people together and to social bodies. From prediction of average sea rise to issues about feasible steps if future generations are allowed to prosper, scientists, philosophers, politicians, activists, and folk, we are often ambivalent.  When hard questions face us in any way that goes beyond having to put time and effort into collecting evidence, we may well be ambivalent rather than wholeheartedly believe that p, estimate how probable it is, or suspend belief altogether. Moreover, we may well be ambivalent when we wisely confront or reconceive the issues at hand, are ethically oriented, and seek and acquire both better understanding and practical guidance. Presenting my book Ambivalence: A Philosophical Exploration (Rowman and Littlefield Int., 2017), I will discuss two structures of ambivalence of belief and of value judgement, to each of which uncertainty is intrinsic, and ask how ambivalence and its diverse possibilities bear on the multiplicity of a person’s attitudes, socio-political interaction, deliberation, and worthy action.

Johan Gustafsson (University of York)

“Moral Uncertainty and the Problem of Theory Individuation”

Abstract. My Favourite Theory is an account of how morally conscientious people would act under moral uncertainty, that is, when they are uncertain what is the correct moral theory. My Favourite Theory says that morally conscientious people act in accordance with the moral theory in which they have the most credence. An influential objection to this account is that it is sensitive to the arbitrary individuation of moral theories. William MacAskill has recently levelled a version of this objection to My Favourite Theory. In this paper, I defend My Favourite Theory from this objection.

Christian Tarsney (The Global Priorities Institute, Oxford)

“Can Extreme Uncertainty Save Infinite Axiology?”

Abstract: In this talk, I argue that extreme uncertainty about the effects of our actions on the distant future could make it easier to find an adequate axiological ranking of infinite worlds. First, I describe the challenge that infinite worlds pose to standard axiologies. Second, I describe a prima facie attractive solution, Additivism, that ranks pairs of worlds by comparing them at each possible value location, and then summing the differences in value across value locations. Third, I point out a serious threat to the adequacy of this axiology: the possibility that our choices are infinitely identity-affecting. Fourth, I suggest a way of mitigating this threat: While infinite identity effects play havoc with objective oughts, we can bypass these entirely and go straight from axiology to subjective oughts, taking advantage of the fact that (after some finite initial period) we have no information about which future individuals will come to exist given which present choices. I show that, given very modest decision-theoretic principles, this approach can recover the right practical conclusions in some simple cases that, when we focus on objective oughts, look intractably problematic. Finally, in the balance of the talk, I consider theoretical and practical generalizations of these simple cases. Specifically, I propose first-order stochastic dominance as an adequate decision-theoretic principle for infinitary contexts, and suggest tentatively that the combination of two seemingly very weak principles (Additivism as an axiology and stochastic dominance as a decision theory), together with a large dose of uncertainty, may be enough to recover nearly all the practical conclusions we expect from finite contexts.

Amelia Hicks (Kansas State University)

“Moral Hedging and Responding to Reasons”

Abstract: Many of us think that moral hedging (roughly, the exercise of moral caution) is appropriate when one experiences moral uncertainty. However, some philosophers object that moral hedging is “fetishistic." In this paper, I argue that the fetishism objection to moral hedging fails. The objection rests on a reasons-responsiveness account of moral worth, according to which an action has moral worth only if the agent is responsive to moral reasons. However, by adopting a plausible theory of non-ideal moral reasons, one can endorse a reasons-responsiveness account of moral worth while maintaining that moral hedging is sometimes an appropriate response to moral uncertainty. Thus, the theory of moral worth upon which the fetishism objection relies does not, in fact, support that objection. My argument illustrates under-appreciated resources available to reasons-responsiveness accounts of moral worth.

Jacob Ross (University of Southern California)

"Responding to Fanaticism"

Abstract: Elsewhere I have argued that, when we have credence in a number of alternative ethical or evaluative theories that differ in their recommendations, which of these theories we should follow depends on a number of factors. Among the relevant factors are the probability of these theories and what I call their dispersion, i.e., the differences among the values they assign to the options under consideration. The view I defended seems to imply that we should often follow fanatical theories, or theories according to which our options differ in value by extreme or even infinite margins, even when we regard these theories as extremely implausible. Consequently, the view I defended seems to have counter-intuitive implications in a number of areas, including population ethics. In the present paper, I consider various ways in which one might try to respond to this kind of argument for fanaticism. After criticizing three possible responses, I present and defend an alternative response.

Tim Campbell (IF)

"A Spectrum Case involving Population Prospects"

Abstract: Spectrum cases illustrate that plausible principles licensing trade-offs between two different evaluative dimensions, together with the assumption that ‘better than’ is a transitive relation, lead to very counterintuitive evaluations such as the Repugnant Conclusion: for any perfectly equal population with very high welfare, there is a better population in which everyone has very low welfare. In this talk, I consider spectrum cases in which the objects of evaluation are population prospects. One such argument concludes that for any population X of individuals with very high welfare, there is a population Y of individuals with very low welfare, such that an arbitrarily small probability p of Y existing is better than a probability of 1 - p of X existing. This is the Fanatical Repugnant Conclusion. I consider some different ways of avoiding this conclusion. Each comes at a high theoretical cost.

This workshop is partly facilitated by funding from the Swedish Research Council, project 'Valuing future lives' 2014-0137.