# The property rights approach to moral uncertainty

The summary and introduction can be read below. The full paper is available here.

This working paper was produced as part of the Happier Lives Institute’s 2022 Summer Research Fellowship

# Summary

Given the current state of our moral knowledge, it is entirely reasonable to be uncertain about a wide range of moral issues. Hence, it is surprising how little attention contemporary philosophers have paid (until the past decade) to moral uncertainty. In this paper, I have considered the prima facie plausible suggestion that appropriateness under moral uncertainty is a matter of dividing one’s resources between the moral theories in which one has credence, allowing each theory to use its resources as it sees fit. I have gone on to develop this approach into a fully-fledged Property Rights Theory, sensitive to many of the complications that we face in making moral decisions over time. This Property Rights Theory deserves to takes its place as a leading theory of appropriateness under conditions of moral uncertainty.

# Introduction

Distribution: Imagine that some agent J is devoting her life to ‘earning to give’: J is pursuing a lucrative career in investment banking and plans to donate most of her lifetime earnings to charity. According to the moral theory Thealth in which J has 60% credence, by far and away the best thing for her to do with her earnings is to donate them to global health charities, and the next best thing is to donate them to charities that benefit future generations by fighting climate change. On the other hand, according to the moral theory Tfuture in which J has 40% credence, by far and away the best thing for her to do with her earnings is to donate them to benefitting future generations, and the next best thing is to donate them to global health charities.2 On all other issues, Thealth and Tfuture are in total agreement: for instance, they agree on where J should work, what she should eat, and what kind of friend she should be. They only disagree about which charity J should donate to. Finally, neither Thealth nor Tfuture is risk loving: each theory implies that an $x donation to a charity that the theory approves of is at least no worse than a risky lottery over donations to that charity whose expected donation is$x. In light of her moral uncertainty, what is it appropriate for J to do with her earnings?3

According to one prima facie plausible proposal, it is appropriate for J to donate 60% of her earnings to global health charities and 40% of them to benefitting future generations – call this response Proportionality. Despite Proportionality’s considerable intuitive appeal, none of the theories of appropriateness under moral uncertainty thus far proposed in the literature support this simple response to Distribution.

In this paper, I propose and defend a Property Rights Theory (henceforth: PRT) of appropriateness under moral uncertainty, which supports Proportionality in Distribution.4 In §2.1, I introduce the notion of appropriateness. In §2.2, I introduce several of the theories of appropriateness that have been proposed thus far in the literature. In §2.3, I show that these theories fail to support Proportionality. In §§3.1-3.3, I introduce PRT and I demonstrate that it supports Proportionality in Distribution. In §§3.4-3.9, I discuss the details. In §3.10, I extend my characterisation of PRT to cover cases where an agent faces a choice between discrete options, as opposed to resource distribution cases like Distribution.5 In §4, I argue that PRT compares favourably to the alternatives introduced in §2.2. In §5, I conclude.

Acknowledgements: For helpful comments and conversations, I wish to thank Conor Downey, Paul Forrester, Hilary Greaves, Daniel Greco, Shelly Kagan, Marcus Pivato, Michael Plant, Stefan Riedener, John Roemer, Christian Tarsney, and Martin Vaeth. I also wish to thank the Forethought Foundation and the Happier Lives Institute for their financial support.

• I really enjoyed reading this and it has strong implications for the allocation of resources in EA. With MEC framework, totalist theories dominate all the decision-making. I can’t say that I am convinced by PRT but I hope it gets discussed more widely.

• I’m interested in promoting robustly positive portfolios of interventions (e.g. in my post here).

Could the property rights approach be adapted to internalize negative (and positive) externalities? Suppose view A pursues an intervention that is net negative according to view B. Should A compensate B at the minimum cost to make up for the harm or prevent it from actually materializing*? A and B could look for some compromise intervention together instead, but it may actually be better for A to pursue its own intervention that’s harmful according to B and for B to make up for that harm (and also pursue its own ends separately).

*perhaps weighting this compensation by some function of the credences in each view, e.g. ? Otherwise fringe views could get disproportionate resources. On the other hand, if you do weight this way, this may not be enough to make up for or prevent the harm. I’m not sure there’s any satisfactory way to do this.

• Forgive me for failing to notice this comment until now Michael! Although this response might not be speaking directly to your idea of ‘robustly positive portfolios’, I do just want to point out that there is a fairly substantive sense in which in the Property Rights Theory as I have already described it, theory-agents ‘internalize negative (and positive) externalities.’ It’s just an instance of the Coase Theorem. Suppose that agent A is endowed with some decision right; some ways of exercising that decision right are regarded by agent B as harmful, whereas others are not; and B can pay A not to use the decision right in the ways that B regards as harmful. In this case, the opportunity cost to A of choosing to use the decision right in a way that B regards as harmful will include the cost of losing the side payment that A could have collected from B in return for using that decision right in a way that B does not regard as harmful. So, the negative externality is internalised.

• TL;DR, so this might be addressed in the paper

FWIW my first impulse when reading the summary is that proportionality does not seem particularly desirable.

In particular:

1. I think it’s reasonable for one of the moral theories to give up part of their alloted resources if the other moral theory believes the stakes are sufficiently high. The distribution should be stakes sensitive (though inter-moral theory comparisons of stakes is something that is not clear how to do)

2. The answer does not seem to guide individual action very well, at least in the example. Even accepting proportionality, it seems that how I split my portfolio should be influenced by the resource allocation of the world at large.

• I’m not so sure what to say about 2., but I want to note in response to 1. that although the Property Rights Theory (PRT) that I propose does not require any intertheoretic comparisons of choiceworthiness, it nonetheless licences a certain kind of stakes sensitivity. PRT gives moral theories greater influence over the particular choice situations that matter most to them, and lesser influence over the particular choice situations that matter least to them.

• PRT gives moral theories greater influence over the particular choice situations that matter most to them, and lesser influence over the particular choice situations that matter least to them.

That seemed like the case to me.

I still think that this is too weak and that theories should be allowed to entirely give up resources without trading, though this is more an intuition than a thoroughly meditated point.

• I’m not sure about 2 (at least the second sentence) being desirable. We can already make trades, cooperate and coordinate with proportionality, and sometimes this happens just through how the (EA) labour market responds to you making a job decision. If what you have in mind is that you should bring the world allocation closer to proportional according to your own credences or otherwise focus on neglected views, then there’s not really any principled reason to rule out trying to take into account allocations you can’t possibly affect (causally or even acausally), e.g. the past and inaccesible parts of the universe/​multiverse, which seems odd. Also, 1 might already account for 2, if 2 is about neglected views having relatively more at stake.

Some other things that could happen with 2:

1. You might overweight views you actually think are pretty bad.

2. I think this would undermine risk-neutral total symmetric views, because a) those are probably overrepresented in the universe relative to other plausible views because they motivate space colonization and expansionism, and b) it conflicts with separability, the intuition that what you can’t affect (causally or acausally) shouldn’t matter to your decision-making, a defining feature of the total view and sometimes used to justify it.

Also, AFAIK, the other main approaches to moral uncertainty aren’t really sensitive to how others are allocating resources in a way that the proportional view isn’t (except possibly through 1?). But I might be wrong about what you have in mind.

• then there’s not really any principled reason to rule out trying to take into account allocations you can’t possibly affect (causally or even acausally), e.g. the past and inaccesible parts of the universe/​multiverse, which seems odd

I don’t understand why 1) this is the case or 2) why this is undersirable.

If the rest of my community seems obsessed with IDK longtermism and overallocating resources to it I think it’s entirely reasonable for me to have my inner longtermist shut up entirely and just focus on near term issues.

I imagine the internal dialogue here between the longtermist and neartermist being like “look I don’t know why you care so much about things that are going to wash off in a decade, but clearly this is bringing you a lot of pain, so I’m just going to let you have it”

I think this would undermine risk-neutral total symmetric views, because a) those are probably overrepresented in the universe

I don’t understand what you mean.

it conflicts with separability, the intuition that what you can’t affect (causally or acausally) shouldn’t matter to your decision-making

Well then separability is wrong. It seems to me that it matters that no one is working on a problem you deem important, even if that does not affect the chances of you solving the problem.

other main approaches to moral uncertainty aren’t really sensitive to how others are allocating resources in a way that the proportional view isn’

I am not familiar with other proposals to moral uncertainty, so probably you are right!

(Generally I would not take it too seriously what I am saying—I find it hard to separate my intuitions on values from intuitions about how real world operates, and my responses are more off-the-cuff than meditated)

• The arbitrariness (“not really any principled reason”) comes from your choice to define the community you consider yourself to belong to for setting the reference allocation. In your first comment, you said the world, while in your reply, you said “the rest of my community”, which I assume to be narrower (maybe just the EA community?). How do you choose between them? And then why not the whole universe/​multiverse, the past and the future? Where do you draw the lines and why? I think some allocations in the world, like by poor people living in very remote regions, are extremely unlikely for you to affect, except through your impact on things with global scope, like global catastrophe (of course, they don’t have many resources, so in practice, it probably doesn’t matter whether or not you include them). Allocations in inaccessible parts of the universe are far far less likely for you to affect (except acausally), but not impossible to affect with certainty, if you allow the possibility that we’re wrong about physical limits. I don’t see how you could draw lines non-arbitrarily here.

By risk-neutral total symmetric views, I mean risk-neutral expected value maximizing total utilitarianism and other views with such an axiology (but possibly with other non-axiological considerations), where lives of neutral welfare are neutral to add, better lives are good to add and worse lives are bad to add. Risk neutrality just means you apply the expected value directly to the sum and maximize that, so it allows fanaticism, St. Petersburg problems and the like, in principle.

Rejecting separability requires rejecting total utilitarianism.

FWIW, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to reject separability or total utilitarianism, and I’m pretty sympathetic to rejecting both. Why can’t I just care about the global distibution, and not just what I can affect? But rejecting separability is kind of weird: one common objection (often aimed at average utilitarianism) is that what you should do depends non-instrumentally on how well off the ancient Egyptians were.

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