Hedonic Calculus is a device formulated by Jeremy Bentham to guide his utilitarian ethics. Although it was put into a rather elaborate form by Mr. Bentham, it has probably existed more or less since the first hominid realized that it might not be a good idea to go to the water hole because there might be an alligator hiding in it.

Hedonic calculus as explained by Mr. Bentham tried to calculate how much pleasure would probably be gained from an action, how many people it would affect, and how much pain it could possibly cause.

The recent and continuing War in Iraq 2003, has been justified on many grounds. There has been some jingoism and hysteria, as well as some high minded rhetoric about freedom. Anyone of these is a valid way of looking at the war, but they are also very complicated. Counting the numbers is perhaps the easiest way to start, although even in this there are many uncountable factors.

For simplicity's sake, I am going to assume the United States has only selfish motives in this war, and thus am going to discount the death of Iraqi civilians and military men. I am also going to discount the death of Unites States service people.

Instead, I am only going to deal with two factors: the possible deaths of American civilians due to Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the direct financial cost of the war.

So far, the direct cost of the war has been 160 billion dollars, although some of that money was earmarked for operations in Afghanistan and other supporting operations throughout the Middle East. So the Iraq war has so far cost around 150 billion dollars. Having to pay this represents a disutility. In order to make the war worthwhile from a utilitarian standpoint, we would have to gain over this amount.

How, exactly, can we put human life into dollar values, however? While no one has been so crass as to try to do this, the government does use is something called the Value of Statistical Life, or VSL. One thing the Bush administration was criticized for, with perhaps too much rhetoric, was trying to lower the VSL from 5 million to 2 million dollars. As uncomfortable as it may be for us to have an offical VSL, it is a concept we all use in our day to day lives. After all, if we decide to but a Geo Metro instead of a Volvo and save 15,000 dollars, we are trading a greater chance of statistical death for 15,000 dollars. There is some argument about how great the value of the VSL is, and to find out requires searching many EPA pdfs, but the average rate seems to be around 3 million dollars.

How many American civilian lives, then, would be justified by an expense of 150 billion dollars? The simple answer is of course, 150000\3, or 50000 lives. What are the chances of an Iraqi, or Iraqi connected strike would kill that many people in the forseeable future? If this was a 100% chance, or even a good percentage chance, it might be justified. We now know, of course, that Iraq, no matter what the plots and schemes of the leadership, was not in the immediate position to launch a strike or supply a terrorist group with materials for a strike. At one point does a strike become financially justfied? Does a 1% chance of 500 Americans dying of Anthrax 15 years from now justify a 150 billion dollar investment? Of course, at this point, the analysis is very hard to continue with; after all, the VSL was invented mostly for enviromental legislation, not for foreign policy decisions.

There are major questions about whether the war, by stirring up sentiment, had a negative effect at all on our chances of major terrorist action. Hedonic calculus can only go so far, but thinking about it does give us a starting point to combine the actual costs and benefits in a rational manner, instead of merely reacting to our fears.

Thank you to the noder who corrected my math, and led me to rewrite large parts of this node

References: Bentham: http://www.utilitarianism.com/hedcalc.htm
Financial cost of the war: http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/09/16092003165928.asp
VSL: go to google and type in "Value of Statistical Life" site:.gov

The problem with Hedonic Calculus, as explained in my Philosophy class, over and above the fact that it may not be philosophically justified, is that it is unusable. While this may be an unclear criticism, it becomes significantly more intelligible with an example, for instance the (as of this writeup) current occupation of Iraq. Instead of looking at the pleasure/pain aspect of the war, which is a secondary question, we must first evaluate the net gain/loss caused by the war.

It seems safe to start with the dollar value of the war, which Glowing Fish placed at $150 billion. This number, I assume, includes all of the costs associated with the war paid out by the US government. Next we will consider the economic benefits of the war, including stock market activity when Saddam Hussein was captured, the profits made by Halliburton the profits of all of the arms manufaturers who have been losing money on their civilian aircraft business since before September 11, (and realistically might have gone bankrupt without some boost such as this one.) The long term benefits to the United States of co-operation with foreign powers, and well as the benefit to the country because of the strain put by the war on the EU, our major economic rival.

Now we can start looking at the effects of each of these, such as the loss of federal money that would have gone into social welfare and healthcare benefits, and the possible repercussions on the economy of furthering the welfare state, and the profits that drug companies gain because it is less likely that congress will pass a medicare drug benefit, as well as the potential jobs lost from programs given to states whose representatives and congressman need to be convinced to support all of these programs that this money will go to. The stock market gain, which will mostly evaporate leads to a less stable market long term, and may cause mutual funds to prosper more. Haliburton making money somewhat illicitly caused a scandal for Dick Cheney, which weakens the hold that big money Republicans have on the party as a whole and the vote share of the party sa a whole as well, moving the country farther to the left politically. The arms manufacturers that stay afloat longer because of this may lead to a larger collapse later, or may spark a turnaround in the sector due to growth from the war. The international strain between the EU and the United States makes international crises more difficult to work on in the future, and could lead long term to both more requirements for unilateral crisis intervention by the United States, and to further Instability, which would be bad for international business.

Now, all we need to evaluate each of these probabilities in terms of dollar values is a team of statisticians, economists, political scientists, and market analysts to analyze each possible effect. Once this is done, we need another team, consisting of psychologists, behaviourists, and other assorted mental health professionals to decide exactly what will occur in terms of happiness of the soldiers long term. Also, of course, we need to understand exactly how the war will effect the American public, both in terms of behavior and in terms of total happiness. I assume at this point we have approximately 50% of the Gross National Product of the country involved in how much the occupation is costing us, or perhaps more accurately, cost us, since it will take years, if not decades, to complete such a massive undertaking, by which point it will be irrelevant. This, of course, is the criticism that was discussed.

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