Normative uncertainty and information value

Dissertation, University of Adelaide (2021)
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Abstract

This thesis is about making decisions when we are uncertain about what will happen, how valuable it will be, and even how to make decisions. Even the most sure-footed amongst us are sometimes uncertain about all three, but surprisingly little attention has been given to the latter two. The three essays that constitute my thesis hope to do a small part in rectifying this problem. The first essay is about the value of finding out how to make decisions. Society spends considerable resources funding people (like me) to research decision-making, so it is natural to wonder whether society is getting a good deal. This question is so shockingly underresearched that bedrock facts are readily discoverable, such as when this kind of information is valuable. My second essay concerns whether we can compare value when we are uncertain about value. Many people are in fact uncertain about value, and how we deal with this uncertainty hinges on these comparisons. I argue that value comparisons are only sometimes possible; I call this weak comparability. This essay is largely a synthesis of the literature, but I also present an argument which begins with a peculiar view of the self: it is as if each of us is a crowd of different people separated by time (but connected by continuity of experience). I’m not the first to endorse this peculiar view of the self, but I am the first to show how it supports the benign view that value is sometimes comparable. We may be uncertain of any decision rules, even those that would tell us how to act when we face uncertainty in decision rules. We may be uncertain of how to decide how to decide how to... And so on. If so, we might have to accept infinitely many decision rules just to make any mundane decision, such as whether to pick up a five-cent piece from the gutter. My third essay addresses this problem of regress. I think all of our decisions are forced: we must decide now or continue to deliberate. Surprisingly, this allows us to avoid the original problem. I call this solution “when forced, do your best”.

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Riley Harris
University of Oxford

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