Contingent valuation

by Chris Bertram on September 19, 2003

I’ve spent the past couple of days at the second of a series of conferences with the title “Priority in Practice” which seek to bring political philosophers in contact with more gritty policy questions. It was good fun, there were some good papers and I learnt a fair bit. One of the interesting papers was by John O’Neill from Lancaster who discussed the controversial question of “contingent valuation”, which is a method by which researchers engaged in cost-benefit analysis attempt to establish a shadow value for some (usually environmental) good for which there is no genuine market price, by asking people what they’d be prepared to pay for it (or alternatively, and eliciting a very different set of answers, what they’d need to compensate them for its loss).

Naturally, people often react with fury or distaste to the suggestion that they assign a monetary value to something like the preservation of an ecosystem. They think that just isn’t an appropriate question and that it involves a transgression of the boundaries between different spheres of justice or value. John had a nice quote to show that researchers have been asking just this sort of question (and getting similar tetchy responses) for rather a long time:

bq. Darius, after he had got the kingdom, called into his presence certain Greeks who were at hand, and asked- “What he should pay them to eat the bodies of their fathers when they died?” To which they answered, that there was no sum that would tempt them to do such a thing. He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said – “What he should give them to burn the bodies of their fathers at their decease?” The Indians exclaimed aloud, and bade him forbear such language. (Herodotus, _Histories_ , III).



carla 09.19.03 at 6:02 pm

You might want to check out the work that Wendy Espelund (at Northwestern U. in Chicago) has done on this.


Ophelia Benson 09.19.03 at 7:36 pm

That’s interesting. That bit of Herodotus is usually quoted as an illustration of the power of custom (‘Custom is king of all’) and part of the nomos-phusis debate in 5th century Athens, rather than as an example of pricing transgression.


Kieran Healy 09.20.03 at 3:35 am

Hey, that’s great. It shoots into second place on my list of favorite literary quotations about commodification and commensuration.

It’s Wendy Espeland by the way, if you’re interested in her stuff. Check out:

Espeland, Wendy Nelson and Stevens, Mitchell L., ‘Commensuration as a Social Process’ Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998), 313–43.


dq 09.20.03 at 11:22 pm

Also very good on this subject, Mel Eisenberg’s classic: “The World of Contract and the World of Gift.”

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