Brian Jabarian has graciously provided a critical précis, which includes an overview of Rowe & Voorhoeve’s view and arguments, an outline of their central cases, and some points for discussion. The overview appears below. As the second and third parts rely rather heavily on careful formatting, the entire précis is attached here as a PDF. The authors have also provided a set of relevant tables.
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The Moral & Rational Costs of Uncertainty Aversion
Pluralist egalitarianism holds that
[one] should improve people’s prospects for well-being, raise total wellbeing, and reduce inequality in both people’s prospects and in their final well-being (how well their lives end up going) (Rowe & Voorhoeve, 2018, 243-244)
While one can find a comprehensive defence of pluralist egalitarianism elsewhere, the authors extend here this theory from cases under risk to cases under uncertainty. They build this extension by showing that it is a morally and rationally permissible distributive theory of justice under uncertainty.
Before discussing the challenges this extended theory faces, it is worth providing some background. Pluralist egalitarianism is built on two kinds of principles: moral and rational principles. The former principles are egalitarian and sketched in the definition above. The latter ones, however, need some elaboration. For cases under risk, these rational principles are exclusively derived from standard decision theory. One cornerstone orthodox principle under risk relevant here is that the decision-maker is capable of making up their mind to form (or has access to) precise probabilities regarding the possible states of nature. For cases under uncertainty, the decision-maker loses this ability. Depending on the degree of severity of uncertainty, one ends up at first best, with a reasonable range of probabilities (cases of “moderate uncertainty”) and at second best, with extreme intervals of probabilities (cases of “severe uncertainty”). At worst, it could result with no probability at all (cases of “maximal uncertainty”). In these uncertain cases, an additional principle is required to guarantee that a decision is rational.
Several candidates are in the running to meet this rationality requirement in our context of distributive justice. The challenge is then to choose one that fulfils the two following conditions successfully. Firstly, the new principle has to be not only rationally permissible under uncertainty but also morally permissible (from a pluralistic egalitarian perspective). Secondly, this principle has to be flexible enough to accommodate a broader and dynamic framework of distributive justice to allow differential and (morally and rationally) permissible attitudes towards risk and uncertainty.
The new principle Rowe and Voorhoeve rely on is the uncertainty aversion principle. This latter holds that when choosing between a risky prospect and an uncertain prospect, one opts for the risky prospect. Let’s consider whether this principle is morally and rationally permissible. When considering its rational permissibility, one has to consider two dimensions: descriptive and normative. We can attest that the uncertain aversion principle is descriptively accurate since the empirical results show that this principle describes adequately how subjects behave uncertainty.
However, the normative rational permissibility of this uncertainty aversion attitude is still contested in the philosophical and economic theory literature. Namely, the debate has not yet reached a consensus whether a rational agent may permissibly display an uncertainty averse attitude. Rowe and Voorhoeve do not engage in this controversy. They instead adopt an assumption defended by some leading decision theorists according to which it is rationally permissible to display an uncertainty averse attitude, though it is not rationally required. If this debate has focused in length on the normative rational permissibility of this attitude, much less has been said about its moral permissibility. Rowe and Voorhoeve’s paper is important because it fills this gap. And, it is original in developing a specific egalitarian interpretation of the uncertainty aversion.
To justify the moral permissibility of uncertainty aversion, the authors proceed as follows. They first propose a different meaning for “equality” than the standard one. Usually, equality is understood in terms of the outcome’s values: two situations are equal if and only if individuals end up equally well off. One could extend this claim under uncertainty such that the only morally relevant information to define “equality” is still the outcome’s values. However, according to the authors, this definition of equality, pertaining exclusively to value of final well-being, would rule out crucial moral information to design a fair system of distributive justice. Accordingly, one should incorporate the experience of uncertainty itself in the definition of equality under uncertainty. This integration can been seen as a moral benefit or a cost in the system of distributive justice.
For Rowe and Voorhoeve, facing uncertainty is a “burden” (op. cit. p. 242) in the sense of depressing the value of an individual’s prospects. Therefore, it should correspond to a moral cost. Let us see why in the following situation. Suppose Ann will go wholly blind unless she is treated. As her doctor, you have two alternative treatments. The first treatment is well-known to all and risky. It has a 50% chance of curing her and 50% chance of having no effect on her. Since you have implemented it in the past, and so, have access to a small distribution of success and failure, you have certain prior beliefs in these current objective estimations of success and failure. The second treatment is entirely new and maximally uncertain. It leads to a full cure or no cure at all with no objective estimation of failure and success accessible. Since it is very new, you are not familiar enough to counter the absence of objective estimations by forming precise prior beliefs about its effectiveness. Despite leading to the same two possible levels of final well-being as the risky treatment, we can say that, in prospect, the uncertain treatment bears a moral cost, which, granting uncertainty aversion, would be morally impermissible to choose to incur on Ann’s behalf, for anyone concerned by her welfare.
In sum, pluralistic, uncertainty-averse egalitarianism favours alternatives for which more fine-grained probabilistic information related to the states of nature is available. Besides, this view considers uncertainty as important moral information to rely on to take a fair distributive justice based decision and should count as a moral cost (in the sense of depressing the value of individuals’ prospects) in the system of distributive justice.