Uncertainty and Probability within Utilitarian Theory

Jonathan Baron

About author

Jonathan Baron, Professor
University of Pennsylvania
Department of Psychology
3720 Walnut St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19104

E-mail: baron@upenn.edu


Probability is a central concept in utilitarian moral theory, almost impossible to do without. I attempt to clarify the role of probability, so that we can be clear about what we are aiming for when we apply utilitarian theory to real cases. I point out the close relationship between utilitarianism and expected-utility theory, a normative standard for individual decision-making. I then argue that the distinction between “ambiguity” and risk is a matter of perception. We do not need this distinction in the theory itself. In order to make this argument I rely on the personalist theory of probability, and I try to show that, within this theory, we do not need to give up completely on the idea that a “true probability” (other than 0 or 1) exists. Finally, I discuss several examples of applied utilitarianism, emphasizing the role of probability in each example: reasonable doubt (in law), the precautionary principle in risk regulation, charity, climate change, and voting.

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