Moral Algebra
Franklin's Letter to Priestly

London, Sept 19, l772

Dear Sir,

In the affair of so much importance to you, wherein you ask my advice, I cannot, for want of sufficient premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how. When those difficult cases occur, they are difficult, chiefly because while we have them under consideration, all the reasons pro and con are not present to the mind at the same time; but sometimes one set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of sight. Hence the various purposes or inclinations that alternatively prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us. To get over this, my way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then, during three or four days consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two reasons con, equal to three reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the balance lies; and if, after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. And, though the weight of the reasons cannot be taken with the precision of algebraic quantities, yet when each is thus considered, separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less liable to make a rash step, and in fact I have found great advantage from this kind of equation, and what might be called moral or prudential algebra.

Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear friend, yours most affectionately.

B. Franklin

A letter from Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Priestly
(From: MacCrimmon (1973), quoted in Yoon & Hwang (1995))

MacCrimmon, K.R., An overview of multiple objective decision making.
In: J.L.Cochrane and M.Zelany (Eds.), Multiple criteria decision making, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1973. pp.18-43.

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Date : 19 May 2010 (updated); 16 March 2010 (updated); 2 May 2008 (updated); 10 December 2007 (moved to this site); 28 February 2006 (minor corrections); 19 April 2004 (url change); 25 July 2001 (updated); 9 May 2001 (created)