Rebirth of Reason


Cost-Benefit Analysis
by Joseph Rowlands

When it comes to certain moral choices, the thought of someone doing a cost-benefit analysis is horrifying to many people. Take an example of the choice to murder someone or not. The conventional thinking is that this shouldn't even be an option, and morality is best when it demands that this be taken off the table. If someone says that the option is available, but they choose not to because the costs are high, this is viewed as dangerous and unreliable.

They say you shouldn't refrain simply because the cost is too high. Instead, they prefer some kind of moral rule that demands you refrain in all cases, no matter what. No analysis is allowed. You simply must obey. But what's the nature of this moral rule? What justifies it?

They can't justify it based on the consequences of the choice, whether that is in terms of your own self-interest or the interests of others. If the consequences were the justification for such a rule, then when the benefits outweighed the costs, the rule wouldn't make sense. Justifying morality through consequences opens the door to cost-benefit analysis.

One alternative offered is that the moral rule can be decided based on normal situations, where murder would have bad consequences. Then once the rule exists, you can claim it should apply in every situation, even when it isn't justified. You might claim that a moral rule is more reliable if it must be obeyed in every context. There are lots of different approaches to trying to expand the rule, but these approaches are mere rationalizations. The intention is to find a way of turning this normal behavior into a rule that is incompatible with a cost benefit analysis.

Similarly, one can reject consequentialist justifications and claim that this behavior is moral in and of itself. It is part of the good life, or it is what a good person would do, or it is moral. These are all circular claims that merely assert the morality of the choice without bothering to provide a justification. The result, though, is a rule that is impervious to cost-benefit analysis.

The specific methods used to generate a blind moral rule is unimportant, and many options and rationalizations are possible. More interesting is the fact that this is the goal in the first place. What is it about cost-benefit analysis that is so terrifying that they prefer an arbitrary moral rule coupled with blind obedience? Why is it preferable to have an irrational method of decision making instead of allowing for a reasoned analysis and judgment?

One reason for preferring a moral rule is the suspicion that it actually would be in our interests to murder other people. If someone is walking too slow in front of you, maybe it would be better to murder them. If someone has a job that you want, maybe killing them is the "rational" thing to do. They prefer blind obedience to an unjustified rule because they're afraid that rational analysis will lead to atrocious behavior and horrific consequences.

Answering this kind of fear is challenging. It's not that hard to show why these kinds of actions would lead to very bad consequences in most situations. You could show that murdering someone would make you an outlaw, hunted down for the rest of your life, and eventually arrested and maybe killed. You could show how completely incompatible the consequences are with a normal, fulfilling life. You could point out other issues like the trader principle and how treating others as mere means to your ends will have other consequences, etc.

Would that be enough to convince them? If this was their only reason for preferring the moral rule, perhaps. But there are other concerns as well.

Another concern about using cost-benefit analysis is that it opens a door for rationalizations. If you have to perform a cost-benefit analysis on whether to do something that you want to do, you might not use reason. You might fake it. You might evade certain costs, or exaggerate certain benefits. There's a fear that if people are allowed to consider the option, they might just go with their emotions. Surely a moral rule and blind obedience is better than letting people make the choice themselves?

I find a few major problems with this view. First, if people are going to act on their desires and emotions, a moral rule isn't really going to get in the way. They can rationalize anything if they are determined. Second, trying to control people's choices with arbitrary rules is not very reliable. People understand that this moral rule is just an assertion and not actually justified, so it is easy to dismiss as "just morality". Third, by claiming the rule should be followed blindly and that consequences don't matter, you are asking people to blind themselves to the consequences. You might think that is good because you blind them to the possible benefits, but you are also blinding them to the costs. You leave them thinking that the moral rule is arbitrary and getting in the way of their genuine interests, and that if they could just ignore the rule, they'd be better off.

Aside from being concerned that the cost-benefit analysis will lead to mistakes or rationalizations, there is another powerful reason for wanting a moral rule. That motivation is a person's moral feelings. Most people develop emotional responses to these moral choices like whether to murder someone, and the emotion may be felt in response to any scenario, no matter the cost and benefits. In that case, they want a moral rule because it is consistent with how they feel about the topic. They feel strongly that murder is wrong in every situation, and they want to affirm that emotion by making the assertion that murder is always morally wrong. There's no argument there. It is merely a statement of their emotions, stated in a way to appear as if it is an objective fact about the world.

Another reason to be against cost-benefit analysis is the belief that if someone is even considering the option, they must desire to perform it. If you talk about the costs and benefits of murder, then you must desire to murder someone. Or if you consider the costs and benefits of pushing an old lady out of your way, it must be because you desire to do it. This isn't right, though. You may never desire to kill someone or beat them or steal from them.

When choosing what to do, you already have insights into what kinds of actions and goals would be beneficial. You don't waste time on going through every bad option. But if a bad option does come up, the question is why would you quickly reject it and move on. One reason is because of the consequences. You can easily see that it would be harmful to yourself to do something like that. Or in the case of a moral rule, you would dismiss it because you have a rule against it. But neither implies a desire.

Somehow the acceptance of a moral rule is not seen as damning, even though it is perfectly compatible with desires to murder people. In fact, because it blinds you to the costs, it may actually promote the desire. But it is accepted as not damning. Perhaps because it is ultimately based on emotions instead of reasoning, it is taken to imply that you don't desire to act that way. If you accept the moral rule, it must be because you feel it is wrong to harm others, and therefore you don't desire to harm them. But this is a mistake. A person can accept a rule for many different reasons, and still desire to harm others. They can be torn between two emotions. One tells them to do it cause the benefits are clear and the costs are not recognized, while the other emotion tells them not to do it because then they would be an immoral person.

All of these possible reason to despite cost-benefit analysis end up resulting in an expectation of what is a "good solution" to this problem. They inevitably look for a solution that has no exceptions and requires no judgment, which could be corrupt. They want an intrinsic value or moral rule, both of which make an unlimited moral demand. The lack of justification is seen as a strength since a justification would imply possible exceptions. The strongest solution is the one that has no exceptions, no borderline cases, and is unaffected by context.

In contrast, we can view the strength of a solution as how well justified it is based on the moral standard. If the moral standard is concerned with the benefits to your own life, then the consequences matter. A good approach is one where your actions lead to positive consequences. A good approach is one that recognizes that different contexts have different consequences. A good approach is one where more information is a good thing, and not a sign of concern.

The cost-benefit analysis has additional benefits. By focusing on both costs and benefits, it demands that you improve your ability to spot both of them. Seeing potential benefits requires you to not only see that something benefits your life, but also to see exactly how it does, and how much it does. It demands that you get good at making comparisons of values based on their impact to your life. It also lets you see the costs more clearly. You learn to anticipate the costs, and to use principles to look for and find them.

These are all valuable skills in making everyday decisions. The desire to create a system of morality that removes evaluation from important decision has no clear stopping point. If making judgments is suspect, there will always be pressure to create more moral rules and more blind obedience, removing all important judgments from your life.

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