Uncertainty and morality

Gloucester Green

Speaking with Professor Henry Shue today about some of the normative issues that arise from science based policymaking, uncertainty was an area of particular interest. Specifically, when policy makers are required to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, what special moral obligations arise as the result. An example of such uncertainty is the magnitude of harm likely to result from climate change.

To me, it seems that two types of duties arise fundamentally from such uncertainty. The first is an investigative duty. This falls upon policy makers directly, in the form of obligations to develop a reasonable understanding of the issues at hand, and it manifests itself through delegation to experts who can conduct more rigorous and comprehensive research. Within this obligation, there are specific rules of procedure embedded: for instance, a willingness to keep an open mind. Without such an approach, evidence will simply be discounted (Kuhn’s SoSR is helping me to refine my thinking about these procedural rules). A more contentious component of this obligation has to do with resources. It seems like more should be devoted to problems that: (a) have a greater potential impact and (b) have a greater effect upon the constituents to whom the policy maker is responsible. The second criterion there has both a moral basis (because of the nature of representative legitimacy) and a practical basis (because it would be a waste of time for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to focus their resources on desertification in Africa).

The second type of duty is to take preventative action and/or action to mitigate the damage that will be done by what has become inevitable. Deciding how much to allocate in total, as well as how to subdivide it, is tricky both for practical and moral reasons. Both prevention and mitigation have distributive consequences; they also involve arbitration between competing rights. Do people, for instance, have the right to live in areas more likely to flood, due to climate change, or do they just have the right to live in comparable conditions anywhere? Who has the duty to provide the material requirements of satisfying such rights? When it comes to climate change, the idea that people have a right to that which they have simply owned or done for a long time is problematic, not least because many such ‘legacy’ activities contribute to the problem at hand.

While I certainly cannot provide answers to any of these questions here, I can hopefully do so in the thesis. Indeed, the three big areas of moral discussion that keep cropping up are: (a) dealing with uncertainty (b) social roles and (c) the nature of ‘technical’ solutions to environmental problems. All three offer the chance to delve into some of the moral complexities concealed within the idea of science-driven policy.

Note to self: look up Trevor Pinch and Sheila Jasanoff, within the ‘Science, Technology, and Society’ school of research in the United States.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Uncertainty and morality”

  1. Are the things you list moral duties, or just things that are desirable under a certain model of administration?

  2. Karl Popper:

    “The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance — the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

    -Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963)

  3. Some potential climatic impacts in Africa, according to Tony Nyong, Coordinating Lead Author, Africa Chapter, Working Group II, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

    * 2 to 4 million additional people will be flooded by by 2080.

    * 0.5m sea level rise will inundate over 1800 sq.km of cropland in Egypt

    * Significant losses in income from natural resources

    * 30% of coastal infrastructure could be inundated by Sea Level Rise.

    * The cost of climate-related disasters in Africa over the next 2 decades could reach up to $10

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