I research decision making under severe uncertainty.
This thesis is about making decisions when we are uncertain about what will happen, how valuable it will be, and even how to make decisions. Even the most sure-footed amongst us are sometimes uncertain about all three, but surprisingly little attention has been given to the latter two. The three essays that constitute my thesis hope to do a small part in rectifying this problem.
The first essay is about the value of finding out how to make decisions. Society spends considerable resources funding people (like me) to research decision-making, so it is natural to wonder whether society is getting a good deal. This question is so shockingly under researched that bedrock facts are readily discoverable, such as when this kind of information is valuable.
My second essay concerns whether we can compare value when we are uncertain about value. Many people are in fact uncertain about value, and how we deal with this uncertainty hinges on these comparisons. I argue that value comparisons are only sometimes possible; I call this weak comparability. This essay is largely a synthesis of the literature, but I also present an argument which begins with a peculiar view of the self: it is as if each of us is a crowd of different people separated by time (but connected by continuity of experience). I’m not the first to endorse this peculiar view of the self, but I am the first to show how it supports the benign view that value is sometimes comparable.
We may be uncertain of any decision rules, even those that would tell us how to act when we face uncertainty in decision rules. We may be uncertain of how to decide how to decide how to… And so on. If so, we might have to accept infinitely many decision rules just to make any mundane decision, such as whether to pick up a five-cent piece from the gutter. My third essay addresses this problem of regress. I think all of our decisions are forced: we must decide now or continue to deliberate. Surprisingly, this allows us to avoid the original problem. I call this solution “when forced, do your best”.
This paper explores the value of information for agents who are uncertain between decision theories. My core result is the necessary and sufficient conditions for information value to be positive. Related topics are also explored. I argue we can compare decision theories and suggest new normative constraints for decision theories. Finally, I identify a problem with earlier interpretations of higher-order decision theory that gives insight into their nature.
How ought we to act when we are uncertain about morality? Arguably, we should be sensitive to the moral stakes according to various moral theories (perhaps by maximising expected moral value). Stake-sensitivity has appeal but may entail an implausible view about the comparability of judgements across moral theories. To be sensitive to stakes we must compare stakes. One response would be to construct comparability by normalising theories according to their statistical properties. I argue that this response fails to account for our intuitions about stake sensitivity.Rather than trying to defend a strong claim about intertheoretic comparisons we might defend a weaker claim. This weaker claim is one that everyone should accept.
I don’t currently have this available online, but I’d happily email a copy.
How can we make decisions when we are deeply uncertain of the principles of decision making? For example, when we are uncertain of which moral theory is true, or the correct decision rule to use, or when we are uncertain of some other norm. Recent arguments have centred around whether our decisions should be sensitive to this kind of ‘normative’ uncertainty. One argument against sensitivity invokes a regress of higher-order-norms. If we try to make decisions that are sensitive to normative uncertainty, then we will ascend the levels of this regress and fail to make any decision at all. I argue that we can make decisions despite this regress. In forced choices we are permitted to do the best we can. Upon reflection it is clear that further deliberation, including appeal to higher-order-norms, is also an option. Thus, all choices are forced between ordinary options and deliberation. We should only deliberate when this is one of the subjectively best options given current considerations. The regress does not inhibit decision making as we need not, and cannot, always deliberate further.
Feel free to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated August 2021