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The Black Hole Challenge: Precaution, Existential Risks and the Problem of Knowledge Gaps

Journal article
Authors Christian Munthe
Published in Ethics, Policy & Environment
Volume 22
Issue 1
Pages 49-60
ISSN 2155-0085
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Pages 49-60
Language en
Keywords Decision making, Decision theory, Ethics, Precaution, Precautionary principle, Risk, Uncertainty
Subject categories Ethics, Practical philosophy


So-called ‘existential risks’ present virtually unlimited reasons for probing them and responses to them further. The ensuing normative pull to respond to such risks thus seems to present us with reasons to abandon all other projects and commit all time, efforts and resources to the management of each existential risk scenario. Advocates of the urgency of attending to existential risk use arguments that seem to lead to this paradoxical result, while they often hold out a wish to avoid it. This creates the ‘black hole challenge’: how may an ethical theory that recognizes the urgency of existential risks justify a limit to how much time and resources are committed to addressing them? This article presents two pathways to this effect by appealing to reasons for limiting the ‘price of precaution’ paid in order to manage risks. The suggestions are different in that one presents ideal theoretical reasons based on an ethical theory of risk, while the other employs pragmatic reasons to modify the application of ideal theoretical ideas. The latter of these ideas is found to be slightly more promising than the first.

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