Moral Vantage Points & Costs vs. Benefits

I am in favor of making as many rational choices as we can, but the reality is that we cannot take subjectivity out of our decision-making entirely. When we strive to be rational, we make decisions based on objective statistics and measurable data. We try to take subjectivity out of our measures so that our decisions can be fact based. But an unavoidable problem is determining which facts and measures to use in our evaluations. At some point, we have to decide which factors are important and which are not.
This means that there will always be some sort of subjectivity built into our systems. It also means we cannot avoid making decisions that are at some level political. No matter how much of a rational technocrat we strive to be, we are still making political and subjective judgements.
Steven Pinker has a sentence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature which reflects this reality. Pinker writes, “A moral vantage point determines more than who benefits and who pays; it also determines how events are classified as benefits and costs to begin with.”
Pinker’s reflection is in line with what I described in the opening paragraph. Who gets to decide what is a cost and what is a benefit can shape the rational decision-making process and framework. If you believe that the most important factor in a decision is the total price paid and another person believes that the most important factor is whether access to the end product is equitable, then you may end up at an impasse that cannot be resolved rationally. Your two most important values may directly contradict each other and no amount of statistics is going to change how you understand costs and benefits in the situation.
I don’t think this means that rationality is doomed. I think it means we must be aware of the fact that rationality is bounded, that there are realms where we cannot be fully rational. We can still strive to be as rational as possible, but we need to acknowledge that how we view costs and benefits, how we view the most important or least important factors in a decision, will not be universal and cannot be entirely objective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.