Moral Uncertainty for Deontologists

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21 (3):505-520 (2018)
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Defenders of deontological constraints in normative ethics face a challenge: how should an agent decide what to do when she is uncertain whether some course of action would violate a constraint? The most common response to this challenge has been to defend a threshold principle on which it is subjectively permissible to act iff the agent's credence that her action would be constraint-violating is below some threshold t. But the threshold approach seems arbitrary and unmotivated: what would possibly determine where the threshold should be set, and why should there be any precise threshold at all? Threshold views also seem to violate ought agglomeration, since a pair of actions each of which is below the threshold for acceptable moral risk can, in combination, exceed that threshold. In this paper, I argue that stochastic dominance reasoning can vindicate and lend rigor to the threshold approach: given characteristically deontological assumptions about the moral value of acts, it turns out that morally safe options will stochastically dominate morally risky alternatives when and only when the likelihood that the risky option violates a moral constraint is greater than some precisely definable threshold (in the simplest case, .5). I also show how, in combination with the observation that deontological moral evaluation is relativized to particular choice situations, this approach can overcome the agglomeration problem. This allows the deontologist to give a precise and well-motivated response to the problem of uncertainty.
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First archival date: 2017-12-30
Latest version: 2 (2018-09-27)
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