Moral hedging: why and how to apply it in practice

by Grace Boey

Last month, I wrote about moral uncertainty and moral hedging. The discussion was fairly abstract and ultimately rather inconclusive; it’s time to examine how real people might put some sort of moral hedging into practice now if they wanted to.

First, here’s a recap (readers already acquainted with moral hedging can skip the next two paragraphs). What should you do if, despite knowing all the relevant facts about animal physiology and consciousness, you are still uncertain as to whether killing animals for food is permissible, or whether it is murder? This is moral uncertainty, as opposed to factual uncertainty. The strategy of moral hedging aims to maximize the ‘expected moral value’ of our actions under moral uncertainty. This expected moral value is the probability of an action’s being right, multiplied by the moral value of its being right if it is indeed right. This means that we shouldn’t just choose to do what we think is most probably right – we should also take the value of consequences into account.

While the idea of moral hedging seems promising, I noted that it suffers from some weaknesses. For one, there is the ‘problem of inter-theoretic value comparisons’ (PIC) – how do we compare values across theories that value things differently? Also, the theory still lacks clear guidelines that the average person can realistically apply in practice.

In this second piece, I’ll give reasons for believing that we should press on with moral hedging. I’ll also recommend a realistic guideline for acting under moral uncertainty that I believe captures the idea of moral hedging: For any choice of action that you’re morally uncertain about, consider this question: if you eventually find out that this choice is, in fact, morally wrong, what attitude would you have towards your actions? If you foresee that you’d hold yourself culpable or blameworthy for the potential wrong, then you shouldn’t perform the action now. Although this may seem obvious on first glance, this suggestion may impact more of our actions than we realize.

Why press on with moral hedging?

As previously discussed, hedging isn’t the only way we might go about coping with moral uncertainty. Moreover, PIC might appear to be a big enough theoretical challenge for some to give up on the strategy of moral hedging. In spite of this, however, I believe hedging is still the correct thing to do under moral uncertainty, and that we should apply it where we can. Here I hope to persuade my readers of the same. (Readers who already support moral hedging may want to skip to the next section).

First, consider the following scenario. Jess, a pregnant woman, is deciding whether or not to get an abortion. Jess hadn’t planned for the pregnancy, and is unhappy at the inconvenient prospect of now having to care for a child. However, she finds herself psychologically torn between two conflicting moral positions: that abortion is morally permissible, and that abortion is akin to murder (which, naturally, she strongly disapproves of). After deliberating over the matter for some time, all she can say it that she’s just a little more certain of the position that abortion is okay, because most of her friends think it’s okay. However, a large amount of doubt still remains. Jess goes ahead with the abortion.

Given Jess’s beliefs, I find her conduct to be clearly reckless and reprehensible. Someone who thinks there’s a good chance that abortion is murder has should not be getting one done. And if it turns out that abortion is, in fact, murder, I would certainly hold her responsible and blameworthy for the murder she committed.

Next, consider Jane, who is also considering an abortion. Just like Jess, she is fearful that a child will disrupt her current lifestyle and cause her inconvenience. But unlike Jess, Jane isn’t so evenly split between the two moral positions. In fact, after engaging in a lengthy chain of moral reasoning, she’s all but certain that abortion is permissible. She does, however, have a certain amount of philosophical skepticism about everything, including her moral beliefs, and admits that – as with anything at all – she just might be wrong. She classifies this hypothesis alongside the possibilities that she might be living in The Matrix, and that invisible fairies exist. Jane goes ahead with the abortion.

Given Jane’s beliefs, I find her conduct to be perfectly reasonable. If it turns out that abortion is murder, I would not hold her responsible or blameworthy in the same way as I held Jess; Jane and Jess would have both committed murders for the sake of their own convenience, but Jess had the abortion while believing it may very well have been murder, while Jane had the abortion while being all but certain that it was permissible. I believe many readers will share these strong intuitions, and I can’t imagine anything other than the application of moral hedging being at work here in our judgments.

If our judgments about moral hedging should apply in these two cases, I see no reason to think that it should not apply elsewhere. Both scenarios represent two extremes at the opposite ends of a scale – a scale on which whether an agent should or should not perform a certain action depends on the perceived probability of the action being wrong (in these cases, an extremely severe kind of wrong). If the principles behind moral hedging should apply at these two extremes, then it must also apply to cases in between. And if we throw out moral hedging as the correct strategy, we will have to throw out our judgments about Jess and Jane.

Of course, what I’ve said above won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t share my intuitions about Jess and Jane. For some, perhaps this reservation stems from the fact that it’s hard to put our personal moral beliefs aside when considering these cases. The first time I considered the case of Jess, for instance, a part of me balked at the idea that anyone uncertain about the permissibility of abortion should be required not to do it. This requirement seemed much too strict. I eventually realized, however, that this was a result of me projecting my pro-choice position onto the judgment. Forcing myself to adopt a theory-neutral perspective and then putting myself in Jess’s shoes, it became clear that she should not have gone ahead with the abortion. I encourage readers like me – as well as readers who intuit that Jane shouldn’t have the abortion – to do the same. It’s useful to consider the scenarios again, but this time replacing the word ‘abortion’ with ‘X’ or some other placeholder.

For readers who still aren’t convinced, consider the fact that when faced with a moral dilemma, hedging under ­non-moral uncertainty or ignorance is widely practiced and accepted as the correct thing to do. Let’s assume for our purposes that consequentialism is true. Imagine yourself facing the trolley problem, where a train trolley is rushing towards five people on the tracks, but flipping a switch will divert the trolley to a track with one person on it. Imagine also that you believe with good reason that the five on the original track are capable of successfully escaping from the tracks in time, with a very miniscule probability that they will fail, and that the one person on the alternative track is almost certainly too weak to avoid the trolley should you flip the switch. I think it is obvious that in this case you shouldn’t flip the switch, and that no one would blame you if the five people didn’t actually manage to escape in time. Trolley problems aside, we frequently engage in such hedging in real life every day. It is wrong to ram into someone with a car if we know he will die or suffer injury as a result, but many decently competent drivers choose to cross their fingers and hit the road despite knowing that there’s a chance that they might cause such an accident. The situation changes for incompetent drivers for whom driving is more risky – there’s a reason why practical tests must be passed before one is allowed to drive. People who repeatedly fail such tests have no business being on the road. This arguably applies to licensed drivers who are nonetheless not confident of their driving skills (one of my sisters, for example, has abstained from driving after getting into one too many accidents). If hedging is acceptable under non-moral uncertainty, then why isn’t this applicable to moral uncertainty as well?

Putting moral hedging into practice

It’s evident from the discussion above that attitudes like blameworthiness and culpability play a part in our judgments about moral hedging. In fact, I think these attitudes serve as good, clear guidelines for the very application of moral hedging. The guideline is this:

For any action that you’re morally uncertain about, consider this question: if you eventually find out that this choice is, in fact, morally wrong, what attitude would you have towards your actions? If you foresee that you or a reasonable person would hold yourself culpable or blameworthy for the potential wrong, then you shouldn’t perform the action now.

This is, I believe, something that the average person can realistically apply, without too much difficulty in many situations. Anyone who grasps the concept of blameworthiness or culpability under ignorance or uncertainty can make sense of this directive.

To readers, my suggestion may seem simple (which it’s certainly intended to be) and even obvious – but I think it impacts many more of our actions than we may realize. Moral uncertainty often acts as a mental justification for continuing to do things that one is morally uncertain about, but once we cut through the cloud with the question of potential culpability, what we should be doing will become clearer. I believe that there are many people who are eating animals and getting abortions who simply have no business doing so. This is not because of my own personal moral beliefs (for the record: I’m currently a pescatarian who doesn’t eat eggs or dairy, but as I’ve said, I’m pro-choice), but because of the application of moral hedging. And beyond preachy-sounding suggestions about abortion and eating animals, the directive can also impact other daily individual choices that we make.

There are, of course, some qualifications and limitations that I must make clear. I am not arguing that our mental attitudes of blameworthiness and culpability are theoretically constitutive of moral hedging (although I actually think there’s a good chance that they are; however, arguing for that would be a separate task). Some people find it acceptable to be more reckless than others; I believe there’s a point past which the judgments of such people are no longer reasonable. I’m merely proposing that, for the average level-headed person with reasonable judgments about risk and culpability, my suggested directive will do a good job of practically tracking the results of proper moral hedging.

And naturally, even for the average level-headed person, there will still be many moral dilemmas where my suggestions won’t work, or will be difficult and unrealistic to apply. These are situations where, even after trying to apply moral hedging, all available courses of action seem equally bad. I honestly have no good answer for, say, a doctor who’s deciding whether to euthanize a terminally ill patient who’s in intolerable pain, but who’s split between beliefs that doing so would be impermissible murder, and not doing so would be impermissible torture. Earlier I spoke of Jess and Jane as being two extremes on a scale; these other tough cases, I suppose, fall into a fuzzy band in between. Still, as I’ve said, there are many other situations where the directive can clearly guide action, and achieve results that are in line with moral hedging. We should be extremely cautious, for example, when considering an action that we believe to either be merely permissible or an extreme violation of morality.

Moral uncertainty is no excuse for recklesness; faced with it we must still act responsibly. Keeping the principles of hedging in mind and consistently evaluating our actions in light of blameworthiness and culpability will allow us to do so. I believe this should be standard practice, and hope it will eventually come to be. And if it encourages or persuades anyone, my own decision to stop eating most meat and animal products resulted from the application of moral hedging. It can be (and has been!) done.