Hastings Cent Rep. 2018 Jan;48 Suppl 1:S21-S49. doi: 10.1002/hast.818.
Consider any choice that affects some social policy. A decision that considers evidence will, at its heart, contain some kind of explicit or implicit “because” statement: “We are doing X because the evidence says Y.” But can evidence ever truly speak for itself, in the sense of being reducible to objective utterances that are either correct or in need of correction? Before answering, consider what you’d prefer. Would you rather receive evidence that was free of any value judgments imposed by human actors, that was laden with value judgments that you agree with, or laden with value judgments that you disagree with? The central assertion of this essay is that, throughout policy analysis but especially in assessments of the costs and benefits of regulating versus encouraging new technologies (cost-benefit analysis, or CBA), the first possibility above is a mirage, and the second and third are self-contradictory. Instead, we are overwhelmingly confronted with a fourth possibility: we receive evidence that appears to be (or is deliberately touted as) value neutral but is suffused with hidden value judgments. In the second part of this essay, entitled “A Guided Tour through Inevitable Value Judgments,” I identify in a systematic way approximately sixty-five value judgments that are routinely (in some cases, invariably) made in CBA, but that are kept hidden. For each judgment, I discuss its genesis as it is most commonly invoked in CBA, explain how it is hidden in plain sight, and offer one or more value judgments that could be made instead of or in addition to the conventional one. The alternative judgments highlight the width of the spectrum of reasonable conclusions an analyst could reach merely by substituting other judgments for the ones currently embedded. Bringing hidden value judgments to light is doubly valuable. First, it allows discussion to ensue on a level playing field; instead of conclusory statements about what the evidence says, transparency permits statements taking the form of “when channeled through these value judgments, the evidence says this.” Perhaps more importantly, transparency about value judgments permits participants in the discussions to offer interpretations of evidence contingent on there being different value judgments chosen at one or more points in the analysis, interpretations that may suggest that alternative course(s) of action are preferable to the one being championed.