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