Economics and Philosophy

Essays

The Moral Justification of Benefit/Cost Analysis

Donald C. Hubina1

a1 The Ohio State University

Benefit/cost analysis is a technique for evaluating programs, procedures, and actions; it is not a moral theory. There is significant controversy over the moral justification of benefit/cost analysis. When a procedure for evaluating social policy is challenged on moral grounds, defenders frequently seek a justification by construing the procedure as the practical embodiment of a correct moral theory. This has the apparent advantage of avoiding difficult empirical questions concerning such matters as the consequences of using the procedure. So, for example, defenders of benefit/cost analysis (BCA) are frequently tempted to argue that this procedure just is the calculation of moral Tightness – perhaps that what it means for an action to be morally right is just for it to have the best benefit-to-cost ratio given the accounts of “benefit” and “cost” that BCA employs. They suggest, in defense of BCA, that they have found the moral calculus – Bentham's “unabashed arithmetic of morals.” To defend BCA in this manner is to commit oneself to one member of a family of moral theories (let us call them benefit/cost moral theories or B/C moral theories) and, also, to the view that if a procedure is (so to speak) the direct implementation of a correct moral theory, then it is a justified procedure. Neither of these commitments is desirable, and so the temptation to justify BCA by direct appeal to a B/C moral theory should be resisted; it constitutes an unwarranted short cut to moral foundations – in this case, an unsound foundation. Critics of BCA are quick to point out the flaws of B/C moral theories, and to conclude that these undermine the justification of BCA. But the failure to justify BCA by a direct appeal to B/C moral theory does not show that the technique is unjustified. There is hope for BCA, even if it does not lie with B/C moral theory.

An Associate Professor of Philosophy at The Ohio State University. He specializes in ethics, decision theory, political philosophy, and philosophy of law. His main areas of research interest are in the nature of rationality, morality, and the connection between them.