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The Moral Justification of Benefit/Cost Analysis

  • Donald C. Hubin (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 15 October 2009

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.

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John Rawls . 1955. “Two Concepts of Rules.” Philosophical Review 64:332.

A. K. Sen 1970. “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal.” Journal of Political Economy 78:152–57.

Ernest J. Weinrib 1980. “Utilitarianism, Economics and Legal Theory.” University of Toronto Law Journal 30:307–36.

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