Risk-Cost-Benefit Methodology and Equal Protection

  • Kristin Shrader-Frechette
Part of the Contemporary Issues in Risk Analysis book series (CIRA, volume 1)


Ten years ago, it was commonplace for economists to calculate the value of human life as the lost economic productivity associated with a shortened life-span.1 As is well known, such a view has been shown to be grossly inadequate. Most obviously, it leads to counter-intuitive results, such as that the value of the life of a 65-year-old laborer is equal to the sum of his remaining earnings until retirement or that the value of the life of a small child is near zero, since her future earnings are discounted at a market rate of interest.


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  1. See, for example, L. Lave and E. Seskin, “Air Pollution and Human Health”, Science 169, No. 3947 (1970): 723–733; hereafter cited as: APHH. See also D. Rice, Estimating the Cost of Illness. PHS Publication No. 947–6. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.).Google Scholar
  2. In two essays, I argue in favor of analytic assessment techniques. See “Technology Assessment and the Problem of Quantification”, in R. Cohen and P. Durbin (eds.), Philosophy and Technology, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Boston: D. Reidel, 1983), forthcoming, and “Die Technikbewertung und das Problem ihrer genauen Berechnung”, in F. Rapp (ed.), Technikphilosophie in der Diskussion, (Weisbaden: Vieweg Verlag, 1982), pp. 123–138.Google Scholar
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  4. This method consists of experts’ formalizations of past societal policy regarding various risks. Followed by assessors such as Starr and Whipple, the technique rests upon the assumption that past behavior regarding risks, benefits, and their costs is a valid indicator of present preferences. In other words, the “best” risk-benefit trade-offs are defined in terms of what has been “traditionally acceptable”, not in terms of some other (e.g., more recent) ethical or logical justification. This, of course, involves the assumption that past behavior is normative, whether it was good or bad, or right or wrong. For this reason, some theorists have argued that the method of “revealed preferences” is too conservative in making consistency with past behavior a sufficient condition for the correctness of current risk policy (see B. Fischhoff et al., “How Safe is Safe Enough?” Policy Sciences 9, No. 2 (1978): 149149: hereafter cited as: Safe.) See also note 5. Google Scholar
  5. Unlike the method of “revealed preferences”, that of “expressed preferences” does not rely on past policy. Developed by assessors such as Fischhoff and Slovic, this approach consists of using questionnaires to measure the public’s attitudes toward risks and benefits from various activities. The weakness of this method, of course, is that often what people say about their attitudes toward various risks appears inconsistent with how they behave toward them. Some theorists also view the method as too variable since it takes no account of past societal behavior but only relies on selected responses as to what people say they believe about risks (see Fischhoff et al., Safe, p. 149.) See also C. Starr, Current Issues in Energy (New York: Pergamon, 1979), p. 7; hereafter cited as Energy.Google Scholar
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  16. In an insightful query in a private conversation, Stuart Spicker has asked how individuals’ needs are relevant to moral obligations to them. He fears that there might be a confusion between “ought talk” and “need talk” here. However, I am asserting no general claim to the effect that moral obligations to do “x” are proportional to someone’s need for “x”. Rather, the claim is that, all things being equal, government has more obligation to reduce risks to citizens when citizens have little control over their own safety, and less obligation to reduce risks to citizens when they have more control. The point is a relative one; given two risk situations—alike in all respects save that, in one, the individual has more control over his safety, while in the other, he has less— government has more obligation to help those who cannot help themselves.Google Scholar
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  28. Alan Gewirth, Reason and Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 222–240, argues that many omissions are morally reprehensible, and I do not wish to take issue with (what I believe is) an essentially correct point. My thesis is that one is likely more responsible for acts of commission than for acts of omission. Gewirth’s book is hereafter cited as: Reason.Google Scholar
  29. Gewirth, Reason, p. 226.Google Scholar
  30. This point is also made by Gewirth, Reason, p. 223.Google Scholar
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  35. For an excellent defense of this position, see W.K. Frankena, “Some Beliefs about Justice”, in J. Feinberg and H. Gross, Philosophy of Law (Encino, California: Dickenson, 1975), pp. 252–257; hereafter cited as: Frankena, Beliefs, in Feinberg and Gross, POL. See also W.K. Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 41. “Prima facie egalitarians” (Frankena calls them “procedural egalitarians”) are to be distinguished from substantive egalitarians, who believe that there is some factual respect in which all human beings are equal. Prima facie egalitarians deny that there is some such factual respect. I am grateful to Dr. Douglas MacLean of the University of Maryland for suggesting that I use the term prima facie egalitarian.Google Scholar
  36. W.T. Blackstone, “On Meaning and Justification of the Equality Principle”, in Blackstone, Equality.Google Scholar
  37. See note 36. John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, in Feinberg and Gross, POL (note 35), p. 284, also makes this point; hereafter cited as Rawls, Fairness.Google Scholar
  38. For arguments to this effect, see M.C. Beardsley, “Equality and Obedience to Law”, in Sidney Hook (ed.), Law and Philosophy (New York: New York University Press, 1964), pp. 35–36; hereafter cited as: Equality. See also Isaiah Berlin, “Equality”, in Blackstone, Equality (note 36), p. 33; Frankena, Beliefs (note 35), pp. 250–251; M. Markovic, “The Relationship Between Equality and Local Autonomy”, in W. Feinberg (ed.), Equality and Social Policy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 93; hereafter cited as Markovic, Relationship, and Feinberg, Equality. See also Rawls, Fairness (note 35), pp. 277, 280, 282, and G. Vlastos, “Justice and Equality”, in R.B. Brandt (ed.), Social Justice (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), pp. 50, 56; hereafter cited as Brandt, Justice.Google Scholar
  39. J.R. Pennock, “Introduction”, in J.R. Pennock and J.W. Chapman (eds.), The Limits of Law, Nomos XV, the Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy (New York: Lieber-Atherton, 1974), pp. 2, 6; hereafter cited as: Pennock and Chapman, LL.Google Scholar
  40. R.A. Wasserstrom, “Equity” in Feinberg and Gross, POL (note 37), p. 246, also makes this point. Even the Fourteenth Amendment, under the equal-protection clause, does not prohibit all discrimination, but merely whatever is “arbitrary”. In this regard, see N. Dorsen, “A Lawyer’s Look at Egalitarianism and Equality”, in J.R. Pennock and J.W. Chapman (eds.), Equality, Nomos IX, Yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), p. 33; hereafter cited as: Look in Equality.Google Scholar
  41. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); hereafter cited as: Rawls, Justice. See also Charles Fried, Right and Wrong (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); and Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicage Press, 1977). See also S.I. Benn, “Egalitarianism and the Equal Consideration of Interests”, in Pennock and Chapman, Equality (note 50), pp. 75–76. See also Frankena, Ethics (note 37), pp. 41–42.Google Scholar
  42. I am grateful to Dr. Toby Page of California Institute of Technology, for pointing out the question of whether the Principle of Everyone’s Advantage is identical to the Potential Pareto criterion. There appear to be two reasons why they are not the same. First, the principle requires that everyone’s advantage be served in fact, and that compensations be carried out, if everyone’s advantage requires it. The Pareto criterion, however, does not require that the compensations actually be carried out. Second, the principle defines “advantage” as overall welfare (including noneconomic well-being), whereas the Pareto criterion defines “advantage” in a purely economic sense. As was pointed out earlier in this paper, serving everyone’s advantage might include according them their rights to equal concern and respect. Such rights, however, do not fall within the scope of the Pareto definition of “advantage”.Google Scholar
  43. W.K. Frankena, “The Concept of Social Justice”, in Brandt, Justice, pp. 10, 14.Google Scholar
  44. In the second to last section of this paper, we observed that discrimination in safety programs might be less justifiable to the degree that the programs shared similar constituencies, goals, risks, benefits, and consequences. Interpreting this preliminary observation in the light of the principle of everyone’s advantage, we can now affirm that discrimination (among potential victims affected by alternative safety programs) is likely to be justifiable to the degree that the programs have dissimilar constituencies, goals, risks, benefits, and consequences—provided that the discrimination works to the advantage of everyone.Google Scholar
  45. Continuing our private conversation on the issue of whether any discrimination might work to everyone’s advantage, Dr. MacLean’s response to my rejoinder about compensation is that it would be “practically impossible” to accomplish such compensation. To this response, at least two points can be made. First, unless compensation is attempted in the cases in which it appears reasonable and equitable to try it, one will never know if it might be successful. Hence, the only way not to beg the question of whether compensation might work is to try it. Second, the move toward compensation is at least plausible since welfare economists such as Mishan have discussed recognition of amenity rights, which would likely involve at least some cases of compensation. Recognition of amenity rights might require governments to examine the whole set of social costs (including imposed risks and various discriminations) in our society. Compensating the victims of such costs need not be more complex, in principle, than providing for the many current types of income tax deductions and government subsidies prevalent today.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristin Shrader-Frechette
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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