When we decide how to act, we realize that things may not work out as we expect. Certainties, for us, lie only in the past. In the future, they exist only for God. For us, the future results of our acts are matters of probabilities, the estimates we make based on the information we possess as we understand it. And, if we think about it, our estimates will always be wrong. The real ‘probabilities’ will either be one or zero, depending on how things actually work out.
In this essay, I am going to discuss three moral problems that reflect this fact that the results of what we do are, from our perspective, matters of probability estimates until we actually act. One problem is that of preemptive action – action taken to avert some feared outcome. Another problem is that of how to take into account the probability that one’s act will violate a deontological constraint. And the third problem is to what extent one is obligated before taking a risky act to attempt to refine one’s estimate of the risk.
These three problems are independent of each other, so the preferred approach to one has no necessary implications for how to deal with the others. Nonetheless, dealing with all three in a single article is merited because they all deal with how probabilities should affect one’s choices, a topic that is far too neglected in moral philosophy.
Alexander, Lawrence, What to Do in a World Full of Risks: Three Issues (2020). San Diego Legal Studies Paper No 20-463.