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The Moral Harm of Flouting Cost-benefit Calculation

This post offers further considerations about the notion of moral harm introduced in my Dec. 27, 2013 post.

Might people who hold that cost-benefit calculation is the fundamental way of making moral judgments, eg. utilitarians accept the following? If they would, that would indicate acceptance of the notion that there is a type of moral harm based in the nature of how humans ought to be. And this harm is not the type of harm they consider in cost-benefit calculations! In this case, the “abused” component of our nature is our economic rationality. It is possible for a person to engage in a cost-benefit calculation and choose a less than the best alternative on a whim or some hunch “Oh, what the f—, let’s do it anyway.” This flouting of economic reasoning might be how “people escape from prisoners’ dilemmas.” I suspect some young men have entered years of imprisonment because of imprudent choices expressed with such a phrase.

A few philosophers even dismiss the possibility of cost-benefit calculation being used in moral reasoning. Grizez, Finnis et al. have argued that cost-benefit calculation cannot be moral deliberation since, for them, moral deliberation has to offer alternatives for choice. They hold that once a cost-benefit calculation is made the choice of what is best must occur. See Ch. IX of their Nuclear Deterence, Morality and Realism . I disagree. Recognition of an alternative as best is different from choosing it. Causality amongst peoples’ mental states is statistical. If there is deterministic causation for what we desire, believe and choose it lies at the physiological level. Suppose then someone decides by cost-benefit calculation that a certain act is not most beneficial but nonetheless chooses it, that person made a wrong, or irrational, choice. In addition to the excess harm resulting from the wrong choice, there might be additional harm. The additional harm is the acting contrary to the way a rational being ought to be. Utilitarians may implicitly hold that there may be a moral principle that the way a rational being ought to be is to choose the most beneficial act. And that principle is in addition to their utilitarian principle. Might not utilitarians have a moral judgment and sense that feels repelled by and condemns whimsical or willful imprudence? If so, they have “more morality” than utilitarianism.