W. Sinnott-Armstrong states that individuals have no moral obligation to avoid unnecessary drives with regard to global warming, which “will still occur even if I do not drive just for fun.”Footnote 1 This constitutes a provocation. A consequentialist ethicist is obligated to examine this statement by calculating the expected utility with regard to a single car ride. The expected utility is a product of the scale of the utility (including harm) along with the likelihood that these effects will occur. Such calculations of expected utility are the standard consequentialist response to the problem as to how the consequences of an action can be calculated in advance: “But if my discussion of this sort of case (call it a ‘relevance of a single action type of case,’ B.G.) is correct, then the consequentialist can handle such cases using the familiar appeal to expected utility.”Footnote 2 The consequentialist argues that he is capable of orienting his decisions towards this sort of knowledge about consequences. The criticism has always been made that such calculations of expected utility are too demanding in an epistemic sense and are overly elaborate in their actual execution.
Let us take the statement by Sinnott-Armstrong. What do we need to know in order to decide whether he is correct? A. Hiller calls upon us to make the following calculation:
“(Step 1) Estimate the amount of GHG emitted by the one drive d.
(Step 2) Estimate the total amount of GHG emissions responsible for climate change e.
(Step 3) Estimate the total amount of harm that climate change will cause h.
(Step 4) Calculate (d/e) x h.”Footnote 3
This is not a matter of an expected-utility analysis because no attention is paid to the issue of probable occurrence of effects. In this calculation of costs and utility, the sole focus is on the factor of the extent of harm. But here as well, there are multiple grounds for criticism: S. Kagan criticized this kind of calculation as “bookkeeping” because of its statistical allocation of harm to the individual.Footnote 4 The consequentialist, who in this case is a utilitarian, wants to know whether his concrete car ride makes a causal difference for the world. But I have further reservations with regard to the pure feasibility of the calculatory steps: Already Step 1 disregards the emissions arising during the production of automobiles; i.e. a complete supply chain analysis is lacking. I consider the estimates called for in Step 3 to be nothing other than illusory: For example, C. Lumer tried to do this, and the attempt failed with regard to the empirical prognoses, because the rise of China was not anticipated.Footnote 5 It is possible to discuss whether this constitutes a failure of the method. I believe that these problems demonstrate that the data for so complex an analysis cannot be sufficiently determined. One neither knows nor can estimate how much harm will arise through climate change. That is within the purview of omniscient beings alone, because the amount of data and of possible alternatives and interconnections is unmanageably complex. So the introductory statement by W. Sinnott-Armstrong simply cannot be evaluated, even if we exclude the factor of the probable occurrence of effects.
Expected utility analyses as means of decision have a purely procedural complexity, which makes them subject to error; F. Feldman points to this shortcoming with what tends to be a methodic argument:
“But the determination of expected utility is even more problematic. To perform the relevant calculations, one needs to know his alternatives, and for each alternative, one also needs to know every one of its possible outcomes, the actual value of each of those outcomes and the probability of each outcome, given the act, on one’s current evidence. One also needs to know some mathematical facts: the product, for each outcome, of its value and its probability, and the sum of those products. If the epistemic task in the actual utility case was daunting, this task is double-daunting.” Footnote 6 Feldman concludes from this that, if impracticality is the problem of consequentialist analyses, a calculation of expected utility is not the solution.Footnote 7
Because of these problems, decision theory includes entire theoretical branches which choose to do without any sort of probabilities. As G. Betz describes: “Rather than building on probabilistic guesswork, we should acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty we face. We should not simply make up the numbers. And we should refrain from wishful thinking.”Footnote 8
R. Hare’s “two-level-morality,” inspired by J.S. Mill, provides us with an instrument for solving problems of decisions about moral problems.Footnote 9 Hare offers a heuristic for decision-making with regard to unproblematic everyday situations in which a selection was made of intuitive, utility-generating principles that do not contradict each other.Footnote 10 An intuitive level where simple criteria based on everyday morality are used for making decisions is complemented by a critical level where calculations of utility are undertaken when, for example, intuitive criteria contradict each other. This heuristics was established in order to get a grip on the aforementioned problems. In a normal case, conflicts are resolved on the intuitive level; it is only in a special case that the critical level must be included. This prevents continuous calculation and the ensuing complexities. I believe, however, that on the intuitive level the principles “act efficiently” and “try to make a difference” would also have to be selected and that, among other things, they give rise to contradictions with other principles. There are accordingly a certain number of cases which must be resolved on the second, critical or act-utilitarian level in which relevant calculations must be made.Footnote 11 But even in a two-level morality such as that of Hare or Mill, it is difficult to achieve a determination of expected utility. Hare remains silent regarding how calculations should be made on the critical level; he can only claim that the number of affected cases is decreasing. As Feldman says, it requires a significant knowledge of possible actions and their results, as well as of estimates of utility values and probabilities. While not impossible to carry out, this is complicated and, unfortunately, also sometimes imprecise and uncertain. In fields of application such as climate ethics, in which there is a high degree of uncertainty, these problems often make it impossible to arrive at a resultFootnote 12. Hence I believe that we need heuristics which, extending past level one, identify particularly problematic calculations on level two and also offer assistance in this regard.
This essay will first demonstrate that there is a methodic and an empirical challenge for the thesis of consequentialism that actions can be measured by their results. In a second step, it will become clear that this challenge can be extended to apply to collective actions problems as well. In fields of great uncertainty, an expected utility analysis as a decision toolFootnote 13 frequently imposes an excessive epistemic demand on consequentialism. This essay will accordingly seek heuristics which support the decision-making of utilitarians and which reduce uncertainty especially with regard to what constitutes correct behavior in collective action problems. The answer formulated in response to these problems will involve a concentration on the realization of comparatively large potential utility (i.e. great events) instead of on symbolic collaborative projects. Another example for the problem of outcome prognoses is offered by the debate over a cost-benefit analyses. These are made in order to calculate, for example, the effects of large construction projects such as the Jangtsekiang Dam in China on social welfare. In this case, calculations are made for values which are considered to be incomparable, such as economic growth and impact on archaeological sites, through methods such as “hedonic pricing.” Here, the debates as well as the complexity of the undertaking (calculation of all relevant, often hidden consequences, comparative methods for the determination of a common denominator, consideration of the subjective significance of money) show that the reproof of subjectivity may justifiably be made with regard to the project.Footnote 14 This is evident, for example, in the regular occurrence of different results when analyses are made of the same subject.Footnote 15 The question presents itself as to what consequences this has for the methodology of ethical decision-making: a) When do determinations of expected utility become particularly prone to error? b) How can we transform the criterion of consequentialism regarding ethical correctness into a decision criterion that is not based on doubtful calculations?
The fact that prognoses are often undependable is likewise shown by an empirical reservation regarding the dependability of prognoses which are based on the estimates of experts. D. Kahneman argues firstly against the reliability of prognoses in general and observes that our spontaneous thought (system one) works inductively, develops active, coherent narratives and thereby distorts facts. It gives us the illusion of understanding the past, whereupon we erroneously believe that we can also predict the future.Footnote 16 We tend to overestimate our prognostic capabilities.
Secondly, this diagnosis applies not only to spontaneous thought. As a rule, expert opinions are also faulty, at least with regard to long-term prognoses. Kahneman speaks of a competency illusion: “People who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options.”Footnote 17 Short-term prognoses are more likely to be predictable, but do “not expect much from pundits making long-term forecasts.”Footnote 18 Formulas and algorithms are more reliable, but they as well quickly reach their limits in the case of long-term predictions.Footnote 19 Must we refrain from making long-term predictions altogether, regardless of whether they are of a spontaneous or scientific nature, because the world is inherently unpredictable?Footnote 20 If that were true, then we could refrain from a large part of politics and from our actions on a social level. This degree of strict consistency seems to be excessive. But plausible reservations regarding determinations of expected utility have also emerged in the discussion regarding Kahneman. Attention should be paid to these reservations.
But where do our decision-making calculations fail in particular? What are we most likely to know regarding the morally relevant differences among the consequences of actions; how can relevant information be extended into heuristics which are helpful especially with collective action problems?Footnote 21