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Hedging Our Bets

Is Moral Uncertainty a Reason to Support Multiple Causes?

Lecture by Christian Tarsney, organized by the Centre for Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Even if we judge that one cause area (like animal welfare or AI alignment) is more important than any other, many of us still feel some inclination to “diversify,” spreading our donations or effort across several high-value causes. One consideration that intuitively supports cause diversification is normative uncertainty: Because I might be wrong about basic value questions (e.g., the moral status of non-human animals or distant future generations), putting all my effort into a single cause area means that I might end up doing no good at all. But is normative uncertainty a good reason to diversify?

In this talk, I explore four reasons why it might be: (1) Investment in any given cause area has diminishing marginal value, and normative uncertainty means that the marginal value of the highest-value cause area falls below that of other cause areas faster than it otherwise would. (2) We should be, or are at least permitted to be, “personally morally risk-averse,” and so for instance try to maximize the probability that I’ve made the world a better place rather than simply maximizing expected value. (3) The difficulties of decision-making under normative uncertainty (e.g. assigning probabilities to and making quantitative comparisons between moral theories) mean that there’s often more than one thing we’re rationally permitted to do, which creates permission to diversify. (4) Comparisons between normative theories should be governed by what MacAskill calls a “principle of equal say” (which gives each theory a weight proportionate to the probability you assign it), and the best way of spelling this principle out implies that each theory should “get its way” with a frequency roughly equal to that probability. I tentatively conclude that: (1) is important for large donors but irrelevant to small donors, (2) and (4) are somewhat but not completely implausible, and (3) is plausible but has only limited practical implications. Thus, normative uncertainty might give us reason to diversify, but at least for small donors it’s far from obvious whether it does, and it’s more likely to imply that we’re permitted to diversify than that we’re required to diversify.

When & where?

Wednesday, 2 May 2018, 19:30 - 21:30
Room Omega

Last modified:17 September 2020 5.27 p.m.