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Tradeoffs occur under constraints similar to zero-sum games in which one participant's gain (or loss) is balanced by another's loss (or gain). A tradeoff is an exchange that occurs as a compromise, giving up one set of interlocked advantages and disadvantages in order to gain another, more desirable set. The benefits that are foregone in a particular case are often referred to as the opportunity-costs of that decision. Many personal and policy decisions regarding scientific research, technological development, and the use of technological products, processes, or systems depend either consciously or unconsciously on accepting tradeoffs. In many cases so-called ethical criticisms of science and technology are themselves criticized as ignoring the need for tradeoffs. Analysis of the concept of tradeoffs is thus an important feature of any general appreciation of relations between science, technology, and ethics.

Examples in Science and Technology

Human life is saturated with tradeoffs because time is a limiting resource. People can only perform a limited number of activities and thoughts in a given period of time. Usually, the routine of life masks the tradeoffs made and opportunity costs incurred.

ECONOMICS AND SCIENCE. People are perhaps most aware of tradeoffs in financial choices because money is another limiting resource. For example, with the money I have, I can choose between buying a car and taking a vacation. As Kenneth Arrow (1974) noted, much of economics involves saying "this or that, not both" (p. 17).

Budget allocation scenarios present important instances of tradeoffs in science as well. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) experienced annual increases of fifteen percent between 1998 and 2003. Such large growth was justified by the potential health benefits of new advances in biomedical research, but some complained that the physical sciences and engineering suffered as a result of this prioritization. Other tradeoffs occur further downstream in the allocation of these funds through competitive grant processes. At the NIH, for example, decisions must be made about which diseases to prioritize and which researchers and facilities are most qualified to carry out that research. Indeed, this illustrates a more general point that prioritization is one way of dealing with tradeoffs, and the failure or inability to set priorities is a failure or inability to appreciate the reality of tradeoffs.

ENGINEERING. Tradeoffs are essential to both the internal operations of engineering and architecture as well as their social interactions. According to Edward Wenk (1986), "The most demanding skill in engineering design may ... be the acute weighing of tradeoffs" (p. 53). Different materials have different advantages and disadvantages for a given project and competing goals such as beauty, efficiency, responsiveness, and durability must be traded off against one another.

But tradeoffs in the design and implementation of technology are not an insular affair, limited only to considerations of material and design constraints. Another important factor in engineering tradeoffs is the public perception of risk. Engineers must incorporate safety margins and/or redundancy into their designs in order to reach socially acceptable levels of risk. These extra measures impose additional costs and other constraints, which can lead to declines in efficiency or functional performance.

Wenk demonstrated how political and financial aspirations can be traded off against safety in the use of technology. In the 1980s several highway bridges collapsed, but the problem was not poor design or age. Rather, political leaders caved into the pressure from trucking lobbies to permit greater truck weights by relaxing load limits. Citing the costly but failed U.S. federal bailout of railroads and the persistent pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative despite signs of systematic problems, he wrote, "the more massive a technology, the greater seems to be the political momentum for implementation and the greater the difficulty in identifying the tradeoffs occasioned by its accomplishment"
(p. 38). Wenk also speculated about the influence of political concerns on the ill-fated Challenger shuttle. It was launched on the morning of the State of the Union address, which may have affected the managerial decisions about how to treat warnings of a possible failure of the O-rings. These cases point out the ethical responsibility of engineers when political considerations are traded off against safety concerns.

APPLICATIONS. Yet Wenk's most important point is that every choice involving science and technology presents tradeoffs because technological innovation and implementation are not unqualified goods. There are disadvantages to go along with the advantages and costs to go along with the benefits. This symmetrically implies that forgoing or somehow altering the pursuit and application of knowledge presents benefits as well as costs. For example, participants in the lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process concerning the construction of a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, Massachusetts, were weighing many tradeoffs, including the one between clean energy and the beauty of a relatively pristine seascape.

The case of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is another example. Industrial and political leaders were at first unaware that the use of CFCs involved tradeoffs between human and environmental health and the conveniences of widespread and cheap refrigeration. The international decision to phase out the use of CFCs was another tradeoff between the costs of such a large-scale economic transition and improved human and environmental health. Companies that produce hazardous wastes face tradeoffs between the costs of containing and storing that waste and the potential liability for damages to human and environmental health. As they attempt to minimize costs, the risks to health usually increase (Sewall 1990). Another example stems from the threat of terrorist attacks and the resulting tradeoffs between national security and scientific freedom of inquiry. In these cases, decisions must be made by public leaders, but many tradeoffs involving the use of technology are made by individuals. For example, those who choose general over commercial aviation accept the tradeoff of increased cost and risk for greater convenience.

RISKS. John Graham and Jonathan Wiener (1995) argued that as technology has come to saturate modern life, government has increasingly adopted the role of reducing risks to environmental and human health. They point out that risk tradeoffs often confound these efforts, as well-intentioned efforts to reduce some risks can turn out to increase others. Efforts to counter a "target risk" can generate "countervailing risks," which are commonly known as side effects (medicine), collateral damage (military tactics), or unintended consequences (public policy). If decision makers are well informed, they may be able to reduce overall risk by choosing "risk-superior" options, but sometimes risk tradeoffs are unavoidable.

Risk tradeoffs occur at both personal and societal levels. For example, a woman dealing with menopause can take hormonal replacement therapies to ward off the risk of osteoporosis and chronic pain, but in so doing she may increase the risk of uterine and breast cancer. Similarly, visiting a hospital can reduce risks from trauma and illness, but it can also lead to other illnesses. On a social level, decision makers must choose when to chlorinate drinking water, which kills harmful microbes but may add a cancer risk. Spraying hot water on the beaches of Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill reduced risks to nearby otters and birds, but may have harmed the longer-term ability of the ecosystem to recover by killing certain marine organisms and microbes. Grahm and Wiener proposed a risk tradeoff analysis framework to help decision makers grasp the entire portfolio of risks that science and technology can present within a given decision.

Tradeoffs as an Explanatory Concept

The notion of tradeoffs is important not only in decision making but as an explanatory term in several scientific disciplines, including economics and evolutionary biology. British economist Lionel Robbins called economics the study of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means that have alternative uses. Indeed, microeconomics rests largely on the math of constrained maximization (for example, Lagrange multipliers). Robbins' definition of economics shows its close connection to ethics and politics as all involve the assessment of social institutions and the consequences of alternative decisions. The ethics of political-economics derives from the fundamental tradeoffs posed by scarcities of land, labor, and capital. Even social programs that do achieve their goals leave society with fewer available resources to further values in other policy areas. Steven Rhoads (1985) stated "spending and regulatory decisions that use scarce resources ... incur costs in terms of forgone alternatives (that we no longer have the capacity to undertake) elsewhere" (p. 11). But economic activity is not entirely a zero-sum game. For example, comparative advantage can increase overall output and welfare if countries specialize their production processes and engage in trade. Similarly, although many tradeoffs exist between environmental protection and economic growth, there are several cases where environmentally friendly practices are also most cost-effective.

Rhoads (1985) noted that economists and engineers often clash in their understanding of opportunity-costs and tradeoffs. Engineers, he argued, have a narrower conception that revolves around materials selection, whereas economists account for all social costs. The former ask about tradeoffs between using steel and reinforced concrete in building projects, whereas the latter consider ways to solve the problem without building at all. Their differences also point out contrasts in the meaning of efficiency. Engineers push for the implementation of the latest technological innovations, whereas economists account for the tradeoffs involved in replacing older technologies. The former is the path to increasing technological efficiency, whereas the latter implies that economic efficiency takes wider social costs into account.

Although it is true that economic transactions are not always zero-sum games, there can be a tendency by some to underemphasize the importance of tradeoffs in some areas. The broken window fallacy, for example, states that when a child breaks the baker's window, he or she actually spurs economic activity. After all, the baker must buy a new window, which gives money to the window-maker to spend on new shoes, etc. However, "hidden costs" are ignored in this calculus. The money spent by the baker on a new window would have been spent on shoes. Now, for the same cost, instead of a window and shoes the baker only has a window.

The Panglossian attitude of the broken window fallacy has also been attacked in evolutionary biology. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (2001) critiqued the dominant adaptationist program, which atomizes an organism into its traits. It then explains that an organism cannot optimize each trait without imposing expenses on others: "The notion of 'trade-off' is introduced, and organisms are interpreted as best compromises among competing demands" (p. 77). Organisms are presented as the result of an optimization problem, where "each trait plays its part and must be as it is" (p. 77). Gould and Lewontin borrowed the metaphor of spandrels to argue that organisms must be analyzed as integrated wholes with "Baupläne," or phyletic and developmental constraints. These constraints, they contended, are more important in explaining evolutionary change than selective forces. The plurality of tradeoffs between selective pressures, random forces, and various constraints, rather than strictly between selective forces, expands the relevant foci of analysis.

Ethical Analysis

Tradeoffs can be abstracted into a taxonomy of competing goods, including equity, efficiency, freedom, and security (see Okun 1975). Indeed public policy, by virtue of being public, tends to require tradeoffs due to a plurality of views and interests. Science and technology play major roles in several policies that make tradeoffs among social priorities, between costs and risks, between various sectors of the population, and between long- and short-term timescales (Wenk 1986).

The latter tradeoff has become increasingly important as technological capacities have increased our power to create negative consequences deep into the future. This tradeoff is often posed as one between short-term gains and obligations to future generations, although the degree to which this is an ethical concern in any given circumstance is usually contested. Technology-induced displacements of the workforce also seem to create tradeoffs between long-run, aggregate gains and short-term, localized losses.

The development, use, and regulation of technologies pose many other ethical dilemmas in the form of tradeoffs. Some of the most charged issues involve tradeoffs between economic growth and human health and safety. For example, regulations on pollution emissions and synthetic chemicals protect health and safety, especially of workers who come in close contact with those pollutants and chemicals. Similarly, traffic laws and regulations on automobiles ensure some measure of safety. Theoretically, banning pollution, chemicals, automobiles, and other dangerous technologies could save millions of lives annually. Yet even marginally increasing restrictions on certain emissions (let alone banning them) can bring major tradeoffs that pose the difficult question of how much a human life is worth. Rhoads (1985) cited a proposed 1980 benzene emission standard by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would have imposed large costs on industry but would not prevent a case of leukemia until 37,000 years had passed. The estimated cost of saving one life was $33 billion. Rhoads argued that decision makers can minimize opportunity-costs by investing money in other areas (for example, traffic safety) where saving lives costs much less.

Cases such as this raise the question of how risks should be measured (for instance, what toxicological dose-response model) and how they are perceived by different elements of society. They also highlight the fact that the tradeoff concept itself depends upon a consequentialist ethic. One must be willing to base a decision on the consequences of alternative course of action to even participate in the logic of tradeoffs. A deontologist who believes it to be immoral to jeopardize human life no matter what the consequences will not accept the tradeoffs mentioned above. They would argue that $33 billion is not too much to pay to save a human life, because protecting human life is considered an inviolable duty.

Another important insight is that individuals may make different decisions about tradeoffs depending on how they encounter information. For example, Norman Augustine (2002) presented his students a hypothetical opportunity of investing in a new product that would create millions of jobs and enhance the quality of life for most people. He received an enthusiastic response, but then he adds that the product would kill a quarter of a million people every year. None of the students remained interested in investing, and most said the product should be banned. He then tells them that he is referring to the automobile. Tradeoff decisions clearly depend on cultural norms, personal experiences, and the socio-psychology of risk perception as much as they do on a rational tabulation of relative costs and benefits (see Slovic 2000).

Whether performed consciously or unconsciously, every time new knowledge is sought and new technologies are applied, a tradeoff has been made. In many cases, the bundle of benefits and costs chosen is obviously more desirable than the forgone alternatives. However, in other instances there may be considerable disagreement on whether and how to proceed. These cases pose challenging questions of who should make such decisions and how they should be made.

Decision makers have several tools for making tradeoff decisions. On the technical end, a tradeoff calibration can be used, which involves filling lookup tables by balancing different objectives. For example, this tool can help an engineer who wishes to increase torque while restricting nitrogen oxide emissions. Economic tools include risk-cost-benefit analyses, revealed preferences, and expressed preferences (for example, contingent valuation and willingness-to-pay surveys). Psychological tradeoff analyses show cross-cultural differences in the interactions between an individual's moral reasoning and the consequences of decisions (see for example Swinyard et al. 1989). More strictly governmental tradeoff analysis techniques include advisory panels and institutions dedicated to assessing decisions and assigning accountability for successes and failures. Decision makers can be guided through the oftentimes high-stakes tradeoffs presented by science and technology by specialized assessment institutions such as the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which existed from 1972 to 1995.

Decision making is inherently forward-looking, so one of the biggest challenges posed by many tradeoffs involving science, technology, and society is uncertainty about likely future outcomes of alternative decisions. Increasing information is often a worthwhile means to reduce uncertainties and increase foresight, but this must also be accompanied by decision-making structures capable of synthesizing that information. Furthermore, uncertainties will remain. For example, regulating toxic chemicals involves tradeoffs between costs and acceptable risks. But the situation is complicated by uncertainties in modeling dose-response functions, ecological interactions, and economic impacts. Eliminating these uncertainties is often impossible, at least on the time-scales required by decision makers.

Therefore, many tradeoff decisions must be made not between two (or more) well-characterized competing bundles of advantages and disadvantages, but rather between two (or more) dimly understood future scenarios. Partially for this reason, Edward Wenk (1986) argued that tradeoffs require anticipatory governments capable of assessing different alternatives and their probabilities. He also insisted that tradeoffs involving science and technology call for participation by an "attentive public" not just political, commercial, and scientific elites. Such assessments raise the fundamental question of which alternative will make us better off. Thus, they are the responsibility of all citizens, not the domain of any particular expertise.


SEE ALSO Consequentialism;Double Effect and Dual Use;Risk Ethics;Unintended Consequences.


Arrow, Kenneth. (1974). The Limits of Organization. New York: Norton.

Augustine, Norman R. (2002). "Ethics and the Second Law of Thermodynamics." The Bridge 32(3): 4–7. Also available as a publication from the National Academy of Engineering, Washington, DC.

Gould, Stephen Jay, and Richard C. Lewontin. (2001). "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme." In Conceptual Issues of Evolutionary Biology, 2nd edition, ed. Elliot Sober. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Graham, John D., and Jonathan Baert Wiener, eds. (1995). Risk versus Risk: Tradeoffs in Protecting Health and the Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A collection of nine case studies in risk tradeoffs with an introduction and conclusion by the editors, in which they abstract out the main issues, critically analyze them, and offer some ways to resolve risk tradeoffs.

Okun, Arthur M. (1975). Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution. Explores the question of to what extent governments should pursue economic equality and notes four major tradeoffs involved in this pursuit, which are weighed against the tradeoffs of allowing the market to function based solely on efficiency.

Rhoads, Steven E. (1985). The Economist's View of the World: Governments, Markets, and Public Policy. London: Cambridge University Press. Contains sections on opportunity cost (pp. 11–24) and benefit-cost analysis (pp. 124–142) that are most relevant to tradeoffs.

Sewell, Kenneth S. (1990). The Tradeoff between Cost and Risk in Hazardous Waste Management. New York: Garland. Provides a conceptual framework to evaluate these tradeoffs and applies it to a case study in Massachusetts.

Slovic, Paul (2000). The Perception of Risk. Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications.

Swinyard, William R., Thomas J. Delong, and Peng Sim Cheng. (1989). "The Relationship between Moral Decisions and their Consequences." Journal of Business Ethics 8: 289–297. Proposes a tradeoff analysis framework to elucidate the way in which these decisions are made.

Wenk, Edward Jr. (1986). Tradeoffs: Imperatives of Choice in a High-Tech World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. One of the best single overviews of the topic. Examines the decisions that must be made as technology intersects with culture, politics, and individual lives.