Senseless Kindness: The Politics of Cost Benefit Analysis


This essay identifies a social phenomenon that the Russian-Jewish novelist and war correspondent Vasily Grossman calls "senseless kindness." Emerging without prior warning from certain face-to-face encounters between human beings, the striking reversal of preferences that characterizes this phenomenon can be used to cast a critical light on the practices of Cost Benefit Analysis ("CBA"). Not only does senseless kindness highlight the troubling theoretical problem of determining the "correct" ex ante—the point in time at which CBA measures people's preferences—it also points towards the possibility of a more general critique of CBA's indifference to how preferences are formed and expressed. The essay shows that CBA ignores the concrete experiences of everyday human sociality and communicative action by modeling them in all instances as "transactions costs" to be reduced or avoided rather than celebrated, or at least studied for their meaning. Missing from CBA is any sense that the face-to-face encounter between human beings is, or can be, a moment of both individuation (of the participants) and transformation (of their preferences), in which genuine freedom and politics, in the largest senses of these words, are first made possible. Obsessed with what preferences are, CBA ignores the question of how they emerge. The result is not just a partial and partisan view of the possibilities open for human decision-making, but also a technique that puts the validity claims of individual preferences beyond all question and rational deliberation. Skeptical or afraid of government's ability to change culture, certain scientistically-minded decision makers are happy to rely on techniques such as CBA that purport merely to reflect information about "what the people want." However, CBA does not in fact "reflect" preferences as they are; instead, it constructs them as they would be if the entire meaning and value of human reason were reduced to purely instrumental (means-ends) calculations on the basis of correct technique, and if (per impossible) all contexts of people's life histories in concrete forms of life were somehow removed. Purporting to be a descriptive science of what people just happen to prefer, in many instances CBA's theoretical model actually produces a peculiarly asocial account of what their preferences ought to be.



Date of this Version

April 2006