Two Conceptions Of Legitimacy

Consider, by way of contrast, what I have called a Kantian conception of value.37 The individual, for Kant, is a judge of values, not a mere haver of wants, and the individual judges not merely for himself or herself but as a member of a relevant community or group. The central idea in a Kantian approach to ethics is that some values are more reasonable than others and therefore have a better claim upon the assent of members of the community as such.38 The world of obligation, like the world of mathematics or the world of empirical fact, is objective - it is public not private - so that the intersubjective virtues and standards of argument and criticism apply.

Kant recognizes that judgments concerning value, like other beliefs and perceptions, are subjective states of mind, but he points out that, like other beliefs and perceptions, they have objective content as well. Accordingly, actions or choices may be criticized or praised as morally better or worse in view of the given circumstances. Thus, Kant discusses valuation in the context not of psychology but of cognition. A person who makes a value judgment claims to know what is right or what is good and not just what is preferred in the circumstances. A value judgment is like an empirical judgment in that it claims to be true or at least responsive to the situation, not merely to be felt. Thus, the normative content of a judgment (or "preference") varies with the strength of the reasons for it - reasons that appeal for the agreement or correction of others. According to the Kantian approach, WTP has nothing to do with the normative content of judgments about better and worse or, if one must us the term, nothing to do with the normative content of "preferences."

We have, then, two approaches to social regulation before us. The welfare-economic approach assumes that political and economic decisions about the environment are justified in roughly the same way, which is, in relation to subjective preferences individuals express or would express in their consumer and, possibly, their voting behavior. According to this approach, the policy that may be defended on objective grounds - as the right thing to do - is the policy of maximizing the satisfaction of these preferences ranked by WTP; every other decision is an application of that one. The "true" theory of social value - the WTP criterion - is assumed in advance. Any other view is only as good as there is WTP for it.

The Kantian approach, on the other hand, asserts that policy recommendations in general are to be judged on the basis of reasons rather than wants. The functioning of political institutions - each appropriate to the kind of problem it must resolve - is crucial because individuals or their representatives must agree on decisions and be accountable for them. The Kantian approach like the economic one makes individuals the ultimate sources of policy - but it submits policy to their judgment rather than deriving it from their preferences or, more precisely, from the WTP associated with them. This approach treats people with respect and concern insofar as it regards them as thinking beings capable of discussing issues on their merits. This is different from regarding people as bundles of preferences or locations where WTP may be found.

The Kantian approach assumes that public policies may, in general, be justified or refuted on objective grounds, that is, on the basis of what can be said for or against them, not necessarily on the basis of the intensity of competing desires. The Kantian concedes, nevertheless, that many decisions are too trivial, too personal, or too knotty to be argued in foro publico and thus should be left to some nonpolitical resolution, usually to a market. Many choices - such as those related to religion - are so fraught with passion they must be left wherever possible to the conscience of the individual. Other questions are too trivial to matter politically. How many yo-yos should be produced as compared to how many Frisbees? Should pants be cuffed? These questions are so inconsequential or personal, it is plain that markets should handle them. It does not follow from this, however, that we should adopt a WTP approach to resolving every question.

A WTP approach to arithmetic, for example, is plainly inadequate. No matter how much people are willing to pay, three will never be the square root of six. Similarly, segregation is a national curse, and if we are willing to pay for it, this does not make it better but only makes us worse. Also, the case for or against abortion rights must stand on the merits; it cannot be priced at the margin.39 The war in Vietnam was a moral debacle, and this can be determined without shadow-pricing the WTP of those who demonstrated against it.40 Similarly, we do not decide to execute murderers by asking how much bleeding hearts are willing to pay to see a person pardoned and how much hard hearts are willing to pay to see him hanged. All these matters appeal to conceptions of justice, moral intuitions, cultural and ethical arguments, and reflections on experience. These have nothing to do with willingness to pay. Our failures to make the right decisions in these matters are failures in arithmetic, in wisdom, in taste, in morality - but they are not market failures. There are no relevant markets to have failed.

What separates these questions from those that may be settled by the preponderance of WTP is this: they involve matters of knowledge, wisdom, morality, and taste that admit of better or worse, right or wrong, true or false - and these concepts differ from economic optimality. Environmental questions - the protection of wilderness, habitats, water, land, and air as well as policy toward environmental safety and health -involve moral and aesthetic principles and not just economic ones. This is consistent, of course, with cost-effective strategies for implementing environmental goals and with recognition of the importance of personal freedoms and economic constraints. It is also consistent with social prosperity, which free markets may achieve through competition and innovation, concepts that have no clear connection to the WTP approach that now dominates the discussion of environmental policy and valuation.

What Rogers's therapist does to the patient the cost-benefit analyst does to society as a whole. The analyst is neutral among our "values" -having first assumed a view of what values are, that is, having assumed a particular theory of the good. This is a theory that fails to treat values as values and therefore fails to treat the persons who have them with respect or concern. It does not treat them even as persons but only as sites at which affective states may be found. And thus we may conclude that the "neutrality" of cost-benefit analysis is no basis for its legitimacy. We recognize this neutrality as indifference toward value - indifference so deep, so studied, and so assured that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.

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