This is from William MacAskill's Doctoral dissertation, titled 'Normative Uncertainty'. My comments are in bold.
'Normative uncertainty is a fact of life.
'Suppose that I have £20 to spend. With that money, I could eat out at a delightful
Indian restaurant. Or I could pay for four long-lasting insecticide-treated bednets that
would protect eight children against malaria. In comparing these two options, let us
suppose that I know all the morally relevant facts about what that £20 could do. Even
so, I still don’t know whether I’m obligated to donate that money or whether it’s
permissible for me to pay for the meal out, because I just don’t know how strong my
moral obligations to distant strangers are. So I don’t ultimately know what I ought to do.'
This is a good reason to hold that normative uncertainty can never be a fact of a truly ethical life but merely a fallacy that a self-publicist may strategically cultivate. Why? Well, a person whose life is truly ethical can never have disposable income for indulgence in a luxury while some people lack necessities. Thus, an ethical person never has £20 to spend on a 'delightful' Indian meal at a restaurant because she is already eating at a langar- or Community Soup kitchen- and handing over her entire earnings to those in need.
'For an example of normative uncertainty on a larger scale, suppose that the members of
a government are making a decision about whether to tax carbon emissions. They
know, let us suppose, all the relevant facts about what would happen as a result of the
tax: it would make presently existing people worse off, as they would consume less oil
and coal, and therefore be less economically productive; but it would slow the onset of
climate change, thereby increasing the welfare of people living in the future. But the
members of the government don’t know how to weigh the interest of future people
against the interests of presently existing people. So, again, those in this government
don't ultimately know what they ought to do.'
Members of a Government are not principals, thus their own normative preferences are irrelevant, they are agents simply. If they know 'all the relevant facts about what would happen as a result of a tax', their duty is to inform their principal- viz. the citizens on behalf of whom they exercise authority. It is up to the citizens to decide how to allocate resources between generations. Once again, normative uncertainty can't arise unless members of a Government are violating their duty to act as agents, not principals, and thus are not living an ethical life.
'In both of these cases, the uncertainty in question is not uncertainty about what will
happen, but rather is fundamental normative uncertainty. Recently, some philosophers
have suggested that there are norms that govern how one ought to act that take into account one’s fundamental normative uncertainty. I call this suggestion
Actually, in both these cases, people who are not living an ethical life are simply pretending that the reason for this is because they haven't yet made up their mind as to what type of ethical life they ought to adopt. Thus 'metanormativism' isn't normative, it is pathological. Indeed MacAskill himself writes 'Metanormativism isn’t about normativity, in the way that meta-ethics is about
ethics, or that a meta-language is about a language. Rather, ‘meta’ is used in the sense of ‘over’ or
‘beyond’: that is, in the sense used in the word ‘metacarpal’, where, the metacarpal bones in the hand are
located beyond the carpal bones. Regarding metanormativism, there is a clear analogy with the debate
about the subjective or objective ought in moral theory (that is, whether moral norms are evidence-relative
or belief-relative in some way). However, using the term ‘normative subjectivism’ instead of
‘metanormativism’ would have had misleading associations with subjectivism in meta-ethics. So I went
with ‘metanormativism’ – with the caveat that this shouldn’t be confused with the study of normativity'
If you do the cooking, it is normative that I do the washing up. Meta-normativity is like my claiming I'm actually doing 'meta-washing-up' by getting drunk and vomiting in the sink in which you piled up the dishes.
If you are intelligent, you will say to me 'fuck off. Meta-normativity' is meaningless cognitivist shite. I'm going to beat you till you sober up and clean that sink.'
However, if you are stupid- for example if you subscribe to comuptational cognitivism- then you are obliged to take my claim seriously. Following MacAskill's 'Maximal Expected Choiceworthiness' framework, you will be distressed to find that I am ethically superior to you because I have caused you to devote scarce resources to 'Philosophical research' which stupid people like you (i.e. computational cognitivists) consider a very good thing even though sensible people condemn it for 'crowding out' socially beneficial actions.
'There are two main motivations for metanormativism. The first is simply an appeal to
intuitions about cases. Consider the following example:
'Jane is at dinner, and she can either choose foie gras, or the vegetarian risotto.
Let’s suppose that, according to the true moral theory, both of these options are
equally choice-worthy: animal welfare is not of moral value so there is no moral
reason for choosing one meal over another, and Jane would find either meal equally tasty, and so she has no prudential reason for preferring one over the
other. Let’s suppose that Jane has high credence in that view. But she also finds
plausible the view that animal welfare is of moral value, according to which the
risotto is the more choice-worthy option.
In this situation, choosing the risotto over the foie gras is more choice-worthy according
to some moral views in which she has credence, and less choice-worthy according to
none. In the language of decision-theory, the risotto dominates the foie gras. So it seems
very clear that, in some sense of ‘ought’, Jane ought to choose the risotto, and ought not
to buy the foie gras. But, if so, then there must be a sense of ‘ought’ that takes into
account Jane’s first-order normative uncertainty.
Jane finds 2 options, which cost the same, equally good. Should she starve, like Buridan's ass or should she makes a choice based on an irrelevant alternative? Obviously, she should make a choice, finish her meal quickly, and get back to work. In this case, choosing the risotto represents compliance with a deontics that isn't 'true' because it includes supererogatory prohibitions of no ethical worth but which may have some signalling or strategic function.
There is no first order normative uncertainty here because we are told that an accessible 'true moral theory' obtains.
Decision theory is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what she eats. What matters is that she finish her meal quickly and get back to work.
'A second motivation for metanormativism is based on the idea of action-guidingness.
There has been a debate concerning whether there is a sense of ‘ought’ that is relative
to the decision-maker’s beliefs or credences (a ‘subjective’ sense of ought), in addition to
a sense of ‘ought’ that is not relative to the decision-maker’s beliefs or credences (an
‘objective’ sense of ought).
The principal argument for thinking that there must be a subjective sense of ‘ought’ is
because the objective sense of ‘ought’ is not sufficiently action-guiding.
Once again, we find that the claimed motivation for metanormativism arises from the refusal to grant that some actions have no ethical or deontic status- they are 'supererogatory'. This is a good thing if Knightian Uncertainty obtains because the more 'free' choices each agent can make, the faster and more thoroughly the fitness landscape can be investigated. Suppose Knightian Uncertainty is small whereas the risk of a catastrophe is known to be high- e.g. 90 per cent. In this case, it might make sense to require that subjectivity be conditioned to show a preference for 'metanormativity' iff
1) there is always a null option- i.e. a choice which has neglibible effect
2) no scarce resources are used up as a result
In other words, metanormativism is not empty or pathological provided the people to whom it is touted can do no good but, at the margin, might do some harm. In this case, it makes sense to baffle them with bullshit.
However, there is a superior alternative. Tell them they are shite and they have a duty to resign from any responsible office or position of power or authority.
Susan, and the Medicine -
Susan is a doctor, who has a sick patient, Greg. Susan is unsure whether Greg
has condition X or condition Y: she thinks each possibility is equally likely. And
it is impossible for her to gain any evidence that will help her improve her state
of knowledge any further. She has a choice of three drugs that she can give
Greg: drugs A, B, and C. If she gives him drug A, and he has condition X, then
he will be completely cured; but if she gives him drug A, and he has condition Y,
then he will die. If she gives him drug C, and he has condition Y, then he will be
completely cured; but if she gives him drug C, and he has condition X, then he
will die. If she gives him drug B, then he will be almost completely cured,
whichever condition he has, but not completely cured.
Her decision can be represented in the following table, using numbers to
represent how good each outcome would be:
Greg has condition X – 50% Greg has condition Y – 50%
A 100 0
B 99 99
C 0 100
Finally, suppose that, as a matter of fact, Greg has condition Y. So giving Greg
drug C would completely cure him.
What should Susan do? Obviously, she should give him drug B. It's called 'regret minimization' or 'hedging your bets'. But, since you are a Professor of Ethics or some such shite, you aren't gonna say 'D'uh! The answer is B.' because the way you guys get tenure is by staying the stupidest possible thing. In some sense, it seems that Susan ought to give Greg drug C: doing so is what will
actually cure Greg. But given that she doesn’t know that Greg has condition Y, it seems
that it would be reckless for Susan to administer drug C. As far as she knows, in doing so she’d be taking a 50% risk of Greg’s death. And so it also seems that there’s a sense
of ‘ought’ according to which she ought to administer drug B.
In this case, the objective consequentialist’s recommendation — “do what actually has
the best consequences” — is not useful advice for Susan. It is not a piece of advice that
the she can act on, because she does not know, and is not able to come to know, what
action actually has the best consequences. So one might worry that the objective
consequentialist’s recommendation is not sufficiently action-guiding: it’s very rare that a
decision-maker will be in a position to know what she ought to do. In contrast, so the
argument goes, if there is a subjective sense of ‘ought’ then the decision-maker will very
often know what she ought to do. So the thought that there should be at least some
sense of ‘ought’ that is sufficiently action-guiding motivates the idea that there is a
subjective sense of ‘ought’.
Similar considerations motivate metanormativism. Just as one is very often not in a
position to know what the consequences of one’s actions are, one is very often not in a
position to know which moral norms are true; in which case a sufficiently actionguiding
sense of ‘ought’ must take into account normative uncertainty as well.
A Doctor is an agent, not a Principal. The Doctor only gains salience in a Decision situation if there is a 'skill' or information asymmetry- in which case there is a dilemma re. operationalizing informed consent. . In this case, however, nothing of the sort obtains. Since Susan is posited as someone for whom advice from an Ethicist could be 'useful', it must be the case that she is as stupid as shit and thus a shite Doctor. She should resign. Why? Because it is 'impossible for her to gain any evidence that will help her improve her state of knowledge any further.' In other words, she will learn nothing from a failure. Consequently, in obedience to the Hippocratic oath, she has a duty to give the guardian of the Patient all the information quoted above, return any fees she received, and quit the role of Doctor. There is no 'normative uncertainty' here, unless she is living an unethical life and is happy to continue doing so.
Metanormativism, MacAskill tells us, is motivated by wanting to continue acting in an ethical capacity even when one knows one ought not to so act by reason of ignorance or stupidity or lack of competence. But such metanormativism isn't part of Normative Decision making any more than my throwing up in the sink is part of my duty of doing the washing up. However, as a matter of fact, not theory, if you invite me to dinner and I promise to do the washing up, what actually happens is I get drunk and vomit all over the plates you have piled up in the sink. You manage to get me into a taxi and hope you've seen the last of me. I send you an Email the next day showing, using MacAskills' 'Maximal Expected Choice Worthiness' decision framework, how my actions at your dinner party were actually highly commendable from the Ethical p.o.v. After all, you could have left the dishes in the sink for a couple of days without being greatly inconvenienced- in other words, the duty of doing the washing up at the soonest possible time was supererogatory to some degree. By throwing up in your sink, I made the action of cleaning it and the dishes that much more urgent. This tackled a lacuna in MacAskill's theory which neglects supererogatory duties. Another lacuna in his theory arises from the neglect of culpa levis in concreto type implicit delegation of duties such that a required action is better or more thoroughly or more predictably performed. Clearly, my duty of doing the washing up can be delegated to you if I am incapacitated. By throwing up in the sink, the duty of cleaning the dishes and the sink have become more urgent- you had to perform it right away. Furthermore, you are better at cleaning sinks whereas I'm good at making them dirty. Thus, my actions at your dinner party did not result in the dishes not getting washed. They were washed, probably more thoroughly than would otherwise have been the case. However, it remains the case that you may think there was a Normative failure on my part. This is quite untrue. You are actually suffering from Normative Uncertainty. You don't understand that though Metanormativism has nothing to do with Normative Behavior, nevertheless, if MacAskill aint talking utter bollocks, by causing you to devote more resources to a purely philosophical argument- viz. my claim that my behavior at your dinner party was super ethical- I am advancing the cause of Ethical Altruism which is a true Moral Theory.
As MacAskill says 'Moral philosophy provides a bargain in terms of gaining new information: doing just a bit of philosophical study or research can radically alter the value of one’s options. So individuals, philanthropists, and governments should all spend a lot more resources on researching and studying ethics than they currently do.'
By throwing up in your sink, and then sending you this email, I have caused you to devote more resources to 'philosophical study' and thus made you an immeasurably better man. Thus getting drunk at dinner parties and throwing up in the sink instead of doing the dishes is prescriptive for Effective Altruists provided Normative Uncertainty is ubiquitous or computational cognitivism aint shite.