29:23 – Certainty and uncertainty

Ard: In your work, you speak about certainty and uncertainty in moral decision-making. Do you want to explain a little bit about what you mean by that?

MC: Yeah, so this is a really new interest of mine, and I’m really excited about trying to understand how uncertainty plays into moral decisions that we make. Earlier, when you guys were in the lab, and David, you were making decisions about Ard and pain for him, when I asked you afterwards what you thought about those decisions, you sort of thought, ‘Oh, well, I thought he could take it.’ And then I asked you, ‘Well, if it had been a stranger, how would you have chosen?’ And what you said is very much in line with the way we’ve been thinking about it. You said, ‘Well, you know, I wouldn’t know who the person was. I wouldn’t know anything about them. What if it was an old lady?’ And this idea that at the end of the day we can’t get inside another person’s head, right? And so when we make a decision that’s going to affect someone else, there is an element of uncertainty that can never be satisfactorily resolved.

And I think that the more uncertainty there is, the more cautious we are when we’re dealing with other people because we don’t want to put someone in a bad way. And there’s a sense of risk associated with making an assumption about someone that could be wrong.

David: That rings so true. I mean, I think about it in my own child. I’ve been in the situation where there’s something… it’s a bit risky, and I’ll say to my own son – who, of course, I’m very related to – ‘You’ll be fine. Just go ahead.’ I would never dream of doing that to somebody else’s child because I don’t know how capable they are.

MC: Exactly. So we’re doing experiments now where we actually push around people’s sense of uncertainty about the other person and see how that affects their moral behaviour. And what seems to be the case is that people are more moral: they are concerned about other people more and they’re more averse to harming others when there’s more uncertainty.

David: That’s fantastic, because that runs completely counter to the old arguments about altruism where you’ll only actually care about the people you’re related to.

MC: Exactly.

David: Those nearest and dearest to you. And this is running completely counter to it.

MC: Well it does set up some unusual predictions.

David: That’s really interesting.

MC: But back to what we saw in the lab, where you were quite unfriendly towards your friend here, who you know very well. But had it been somebody who you didn’t know at all, you suspected you would have been a lot nicer.

Ard: I hope you would have been nicer! But I think it’s interesting because we’ve been toying a lot about these ideas about certainty and uncertainty, and I think the general sense is that when people become too certain that they’re right, they often end up doing things that are harmful to others in the name of whatever their certainty is. And certainty can be lots of different things. And so we’d be nervous about that certainty. On the other hand, we don’t want to descend into kind of fluffy, who knows what, right?

David: I’m the fluffy one.

Ard: The fluffy one. But I think there’s… I think what you’re saying is a really good point: that we’re uncertain about other people because we lack certain knowledge about them.||

MC: Yes.

Ard: And so what we do is we err on the side of caution.

MC: Exactly.

Ard: And that’s a very wise thing to do.