Ecology, Policy, and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World

By John O'Neill | Go to book overview

7

PLURALISM, INCOMMENSURABILITY, JUDGEMENT

The appeal of cost-benefit analysis, like that of its parent, utilitarianism, is that it promises a decision procedure that gives a rational resolution of apparently conflicting preferences and appraisals. It does so by the use of algorithmic procedures which give determinate answers to any problem. There is, in the economic literature, a widespread assumption that nothing else could provide a rational solution. In this chapter I argue that the existence of plural and incommensurable values in environmental appraisal reveals that the promise of cost-benefit analysis is illusory. Moreover its problems raise deeper difficulties for its foundations in neo-classical economics. The appeal of cost-benefit analysis depends on a cramped and mistaken account of rationality—one that misidentifies rational choices with those that can be arrived at by way of algorithmic procedures. In the final two sections I examine the implications for political economy of this mistaken account of practical rationality.


7.1 VALUES: INCOMMENSURABILITY, INCOMPARABILITY, INDETERMINACY

Cost-benefit analysis assumes that there is a single measure of value—affected agents’ willingness to pay at the margin for the satisfaction of preferences—through which one can arrive at a unique ranking of the value of different policy options. It assumes value commensurability. Is that assumption of value commensurability defensible? An immediate problem in answering that question lies in ambiguities in the way the terms ‘commensurability’ and its contrary ‘incommensurability’ have been used in philosophical discussion. The term ‘incommensurability’ has prob-

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