The Igloo of Ignorance


The igloo of uncertainty (Image source: UNEP 2010)

Ethics, uncertainty and decision making

The name of the model made me smile, but this article The Ethics of Uncertainty by TannertElvers and Jandrig argues that where uncertainty exists research should be considered as part of an ethical approach to managing risk.

The authors propose a taxonomy of uncertainty that divides ethical uncertainty about risk into two classes objective and subjective uncertainty. Objective risk is then subdivided into epistemic and ontological subclasses. The authors define subjective uncertainty as comprising the ethical uncertainty in decision making which exists where there is a lack of an appropriate moral rule for decision making, or where such decisions are made intuitively due to the inherent uncertainties associated with that mode of decision making.

Uncertainty itself has no ethical quality—it is an inherent attribute of a situation. However, in a potentially dangerous situation, uncertainty can trigger ethically adjusted behaviour that aims to avoid dangers and diminishes risks.

 Tannert, Elvers and Jandrig, 2007

I very much liked their conceptual model of open/closed knowledge and ignorance, although I would differ in how they use the term subjective. I’d also differ in that as I see it objective (in the world) uncertainty should comprise aleatory, uncertainty and ontological risk.

One can also argue as to whether a risk can be considered to exist if we are not aware of it, which comes down to whether you consider risk to exist ‘out there’ or to be strictly a subjective function of our perception of a situation. I’d suggest that the existence of such decision ‘rules’ as the precautionary principal indicates that we at least behave as if there are unknown dangers (1)  which are risks. Even though, as the authors point out, such decision making may be considered ‘quasi-rational’, in nature (2).

An interesting paper, worth a read.


1. See the Rumsfeld ignorance management framework for a fuller discussion.

2.  I prefer the term ‘boundedly’ rather that ‘quasi’.