Brian Weatherson has posted a new paper in which he argues against "moral hedging" — roughly, refraining from A-ing on the grounds that there's a non-zero probability that A-ing is wrong and a zero probability that not A-ing is wrong. I'd like to explain why I think his central argument fails, and hear what y'all have to say both about that argument and about the issue in general.
The argument is that one cannot hedge without exhibiting unseemly motivations in so doing, and so one ought not to hedge. Specifically, Weatherson says, one cannot hedge without thereby being motivated to avoid wrongdoing as such. He asks us to imagine a person who has some credence that eating meat is wrong, and so refrains from eating meat. The content of her ultimate motivation cannot be to refrain from subsidizing the killing of cows, since she does not (fully) believe that this is wrong; rather, it must be to refrain from doing what's morally wrong (whatever that happens to be).
Now, it seems to me that Weatherson's argument also applies, and that he really intends it to also apply [see the end of this post], to all efforts to take the probabilities of moral propositions into account, not just to hedging. For example, there are some cases in which my credence is non-zero both that A-ing wrong and that not A-ing is wrong. There's no "safe" action here, as the Casuists would say, and so I can't "hedge" exactly, but I can still behave in such a way as to take into account the probabilities as I see them.
In support of the claim that this motivation is unseemly, Weatherson approvingly quotes the "fetishism" argument that Michael Smith offers against motivational externalism in The Moral Problem:
"Good people care non-derivatively about honesty, the weal and woe of their children and friends, and well-being of their fellows, people getting what they deserve, justice, equality, and the like, not just one thing: doing what they believe to be right, where this is read de dicto and not de re. Indeed, common sense tells us that being so motivated is a fetish or moral vice, not the one and only moral virtue". (Smith, 1994, p. 75).
I hope it's not out of place to say that I disagree with Weatherson at every step. To wit:
1) I don't think the hedger must be motivated to avoid wrongdoing as such;
2) I don't think there would be anything wrong with the hedger's motivations even if she were occasionally so motivated; and
3) I don't think hedging would be (subjectively) wrong or immoral even if one could not hedge without sometimes exhibiting such a motivation.
On 1): There are at least two ways to be a hedger without having any motivations to avoid wrongdoing as such:
First, one's uncertainty about whether, e.g., eating meat is wrong could be due to uncertainty about whether P, where P is a moral proposition that can serve as the content of an apparently less objectionable motivation. (To be fair, Weatherson concedes something similar to this point.) For example, you might be uncertain whether in eating beef you'd be treating the cow with proper or due respect, or wronging the cow, or wrongfully killing the cow. And so you might refrain from eating meat on the ultimate motivation that doing so might wrong the cow, or might involve wrongfully killing it or treating it with less respect than it's due. Now, Weatherson never explains why he thinks the motivation to avoid wrongdoing is objectionable. So maybe he'd think these motivations are similarly objectionable. But my (very shaky) intuition is that the impropriety of so-called "fetishism" is attributable to its impersonal character. The fetishist seems bad because he seems not to care ultimately about anyone; he cares about doing what's right. His motivation is weird for the same reason that the exclusive motivation to maximize utility is weird. But it is absurd to suggest that someone whose ultimate motivations are treating X with proper respect and avoiding wrongfully A-ing X doesn't really care about X.
Second, the hedger may be motivated to avoid C-ing, where "C-ing" is a non-normative description of the act-type designated as wrong by the moral views in which she has credence. Note that it's plausible that one may be ultimately motivated to avoid what is wrong according to the views one fully believes (understood de re). That follows from the kind of motivational internalism that, e.g., Smith is defending in the The Moral Problem. So why does Weatherson not admit the possibility that one may be motivated to avoid (and, again, read this de re) what is wrong according to a moral view in which one has a credence of less than 1 (to a degree roughly, though not exactly, proportionate to the credence)? For example, if I have some credence that killing a cow is wrong, why can't I thereby be underivatively motivated to some degree to avoid killing the cow? I admit that I'm not sure that this suggestion is right. But I don't see why it's wrong, and Weatherson doesn't give us any reasons to think that it's wrong. (Also, FWIW, much of what Smith says in his influential paper "Evaluation, Uncertainty, and Motivation" suggests that he'd support the suggestion I'm making here.)
On 2): It's important to see that one can side with Smith and against Weatherson. Smith's target is a form of "strong externalism" on which the very general connection between moral judgment and motivation is explained by positing a very general motivation to do right/not to wrong as such, of which motivations like those Smith valorizes are derivative. Smith's beef doesn't seem to be (and certainly doesn't need to be) with ever having a de dicto moral motivation; it's with having this as one's single ultimate motivation, in lieu of being ultimately motivated by these other things.
One might go along with Smith's criticism of strong externalism, while allowing that, at least in certain cases of moral uncertainty, it's fine to be motivated not to do wrong/to do right/etc. if indeed such motivation is necessary to take account of the probabilities of the relevant moral propositions.
Indeed, I think Weatherson should see this more nuanced position as attractive. To see why, recall the combination of positions I attributed to him at the end of (1). He seems to think that while I can be motivated to do (de re) what I believe is right, I can't be motivated to do (de re) what I have some (low?) credence is right. Again, I think this is mistaken, but let's assume arguendo that it's correct. Then it would seem that there's an important difference between acting under full belief about morality and acting under moral uncertainty. In the former case, a de dicto motivation to be moral is indeed "one thought too many" in the sense that it's not necessary for guided action. In the latter case, assuming Weatherson is right, it's not "one thought too many". It's precisely the thought the agent needs to have to be responsive to the probabilities, as she sees them, of the relevant moral propositions. But if I need to be so motivated to hedge or otherwise be responsive to moral uncertainty, then it doesn't seem right to call such a motivation unseemly unless we have some other ground for thinking that hedging, etc. are wrong. Weatherson gives no other ground. This is all the more persuasive if we imagine the agent as being ultimately motivated to do (de re) what's right in all of the "easy" cases — e.g. motivated to save her wife because she's her wife, motivated not to kick a dog because it'd hurt the dog, and so on.
It's also worth noting that even if the moral hedger must occasionally be motivated to avoid doing wrong, she needn't be so motivated in every case of in which she's uncertain. We are familiar with the idea that the utilitarian may aim to do things other than maximize utility; he may follow rules of thumb instead, and be motivated to maximize utility only on those occasions when he performs the mental act of checking on his rules to make sure they are utility-conducive. We may say something analogous here: A moral hedger may act on rules of thumb — e.g. Alex Guerrero's "don't know, don't kill", or maybe "don't kill any large vertebrates" — almost all of the time, and be motivated to do what's right only on those occasions when she performs the mental act of checking whether it accords with her view about what it's subjectively right to do under moral uncertainty.
Finally (3): Let's just assume that hedgers must be motivated to avoid wrongdoing as such, and that this is an unseemly motivation. Can we conclude from this that we (subjectively) shouldn't hedge? Hardly. To see why not, start by considering another case of unseemly motivation: I give a billion dollars to Greenpeace for the sole reason of upsetting an oil barron uncle whom I hate. There seem to me to be two sensible evaluations of my behavior: (1) I did the right thing, in the sense that I shouldn't have not donated the money. (And I mean, talk about fetishism — imagine not trying to save the planet because you can't (now) do that from a pure motive! And indeed, what could be a worse motive for such an omission?!), and (2) I did the wrong thing despite contributing to the planet's salvation, because I could in some relevant sense have donated the money with a different motive, but didn't.
The parallel to the first response in the hedger's case is that hedging may be right even if it's done with an unseemly motive. But this is of course not what Weatherson wants. As for the second response: If Weatherson is right that hedging requires a de dicto motivation to avoid wrongdoing, then this response does not have a parallel in the case of the hedger. For there is no relevant sense in which she could have hedged with a different motive. But I have a hard time believing that an action may be wrong purely by dint of the motive with which it's done when it's impossible (inconceivable? knowable a priori to be impossible? — what does Weatherson want to say here?) for someone to do that action without that motive. Now, again, I think Weatherson's wrong that one can't hedge without that motive — but then his argument fails on other grounds.
That's all I want to say about Weatherson's explicit argument. There's a sorta neat analogy he draws between moral and prudential motivation that merits discussion, but I'm still thinking of what I want to say about that. (I don't think it impacts any of the criticisms I've offered.) I want to conclude this post, though, by taking note of a gestural remark in Weatherson's conclusion that, I believe, indicates the deeper roots of his beef with the "moral uncertainty" project.
Weatherson writes: "Morality should be the guide of life, not probabilities of moral propositions."
I'd want to say: "Yeah, this is true if you mean that there's a sense in which everyone should fully believe (all and) only the moral truths, and that those who believe them and should guide ourselves by those beliefs. But if you mean that when we, here, now are uncertain about morality, we should guide ourselves by the moral truth and not by the probabilities we assign to moral propositions, then you are saying something that either is false or at least presupposes something false. "Should" implies "can", and you're suggesting that I guide myself in a way that I (and you, and everyone else) simply cannot. For the morally uncertain agent, probabilities must guide our actions, and the only question worth asking is 'How?'"
I think that Weatherson and I (and the rest of the "moral uncertainty" people) must have a very deep, tough-to-articulate disagreement about guidance or "should" or something; otherwise we would not each write as we do. I don't know exactly what the disagreement is, and at any rate I don't want to prolong this post by trying to suss it out. Perhaps that's best left for the comments section.