Thursday, February 18, 2021

Moral risk

Say that an action is deontologically doubtful (DD) provided that the probability of the action being forbidden by the correct deontology is significant but less than 1/2.

There are cases where we clearly should not risk performing a DD action. A clear example is when you’re hunting and you see a shape that has a 40% chance of being human: you should not shoot. But notice that in this case, deontology need play no role: expected-utility reasoning tells you that you shouldn’t shoot.

There are, on the other hand, cases where you should take a significant risk of performing a DD action.

Beast Case: The shape in the distance has a 30% chance of being human and a 70% chance of being a beast that is going to devour a dozen people in your village if not shot by you right now. In that case, it seems it might well be permissible to shoot.

This suggests this principle:

  1. If a DD action has significantly higher expected utility than refraining from the action, it is permissible to perform it.

But this is false. I will assume here the standard deontological claim that it is wrong to shoot one innocent to save two.

Villain Case: You are hunting and you see a dark shape in the woods. The shape has a 40% chance of being an innocent human and a 60% chance of being a log. A villain who is with you has just instructed a minion to go and check in a minute on the identity of the shape. If the shape turns out to be a human, the minion is to murder two innocents. You can’t kill the villain or the minion, as they have bulletproof jackets.

The expected utility of shooting is significantly higher than of refraining from the action. If you shoot, the expected lives lost are (0.4)(1)=0.4, and if you don’t shoot the expected lives lost are (0.4)(2)=0.8. So shooting has an expected utility that’s 0.4 lives better than not shooting. But it is also clear, assuming the deontological claim that it is wrong to kill one to save two, that it is wrong to shoot in this case.

What is different from the villain case and the dangerous beast case is that in the Villain Case, the difference in expected utilities comes precisely from the scenario where the shape is human. Intuition suggests we should tweak (1) to evaluate expected utilities in a way that ignores the good effects of deontologically forbidden things. This tweak does not affect the Beast Case, but it does affect the Villain Case, where the difference in utilities came precisely from counting the life-saving benefits of killing the human.

I don’t know how to precisely formulate the tweaked version of (1), and I don’t know if it is sufficiently strong to covere all cases.


Apologetics Squared said...

"If the shape turns out to be a human, the minion is to murder two innocents."
Did you mean that if the shape turns out to be a living human? I don't wish to be pedantic; it just caused me to need to re-read the paragraph.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A human corpse is not a human.

Unknown said...

Dear Dr. Pruss,

I hope you are doing well. This is unrelated to the above post, but the post was great.

I just wanted to ask you: can one be an idealist and a Catholic? I'm not married to idealism, but I am quite interested in the philosophy of mind and I am wondering if the two positions are compatible. My current stance is that they may be at odds with one another because of the role of matter in Catholicism. I also worry that idealism may be in tension with a lot of Catholic doctrines like the Incarnation and the Eucharist.

God Bless

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it depends on whether one could give an idealist interpretation that is faithful to the intended meaning of the Council of Vienne's teaching that the soul is the form of the body.

Unknown said...

I see. I will have to look into that more. Do you think such an interpretation is possible?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it couldn't be the classical idealism on which material objects are constituted by the perceptions of everyone, because then my body would be partly constituted by other people's perceptions, and that wouldn't make my soul be its form, I think. If I could have my body be constituted solely of my own perceptions, I think there would be more hope, but such a view appears deeply implausible in light of the fact that sometimes I have no perceptions--say, when I am asleep.

Maybe one could do it in a Leibnizian way if one allowed for unconscious perceptions.

Unknown said...

Could we say that material objects are, at least primarily, constituted of the thoughts of God? I forget where it was, but when he was a professor Pope Benedict gave an argument for God where he concluded that God thinks the world into being. Now, this sounds very idealistic and since he was the pope I assume it is orthodox.