Ethics and Uncertainty

Ittay Nissan, 

ethics and uncertainity


Most real-life significant moral decisions are made by decision-makers who are uncertain about what the consequences of their choices will be. This kind of morally-relevant descriptive uncertainty gives rise to several important ethical questions, as well as to several meta-ethical questions. How should a morally-motivated and rational agent choose under conditions of moral uncertainty? Should she be risk-averse, risk neutral or risk-seeking with respect to moral value? Does the answer to this question depend on any specific features of the choice situation, the subject matter of the choice or the decision-maker's mental state? If so – which ones? How should we understand the word "should" as used in the previous questions?

Ethical inquiry that focuses on the role uncertainty plays in moral decision-making not only reveals new challenges to ethicists, but also exposes new opportunities. In some cases (e.g. questions of distributional justice related to equality and fairness) one can use the philosophical conclusions one arrived at regarding moral choice under conditions of uncertainty to draw general moral conclusions.

Morally relevant descriptive uncertainty is not, however, the only type of uncertainty which is relevant to ethics. Moral uncertainty – uncertainty regarding a moral issue that cannot be reduced to descriptive uncertainty – is another important type of uncertainty that gives rise to several important ethical questions. First, there are questions regarding decision-making under conditions of moral uncertainty: does moral uncertainty raise a special problem for moral decision-making? Does it raise a special problem to moral decision-making under conditions of uncertainty? Can a plausible decision-rule for choice under conditions of moral uncertainty be found? If so – what is it? Second, there are questions regarding moral reasoning under conditions of moral uncertainty: how should one update one's moral beliefs after being exposed to different types of moral evidence? What are the relations between binary moral judgments and degrees of beliefs in moral claims?

These questions and related ones will stand at the heart of our philosophical activities at the center this year. 


Post-doctoral Fellow

Ryan Doody

ryan doody


I have a PhD in philosophy from MIT and bachelor degrees in philosophy and mathematics from SUNY Brockport. I primarily work on rationality --- What is it rational to believe? What is it sensible to do? And what is it reasonable to care about? 

My dissertation, Doing Your Best (While Making Do With Less): The Actual Value Conception of Instrumental Rationality, develops a decision-theoretic account of instrumental rationality. My current research concerns the generalization of expected utility theory to cases in which you endorse incommensurable goals that cannot be represented with a traditional, single-valued utility-function. I'm also interested in the ways that being socially embedded influences what it is rational to do, especially diachronically.    

I also enjoy formal epistemology, philosophy of language, comic books, philosophy of economics, pop music, stand-up comedy, decision theory, and various fretted string instruments. 



Distinguished Visiting Proffesor


Brian Weatherson is the Marshall M. Weinberg Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He received his PhD from Monash University in 1998. Brian works on epistemology, philosophy of language, and ethics.