Fairness for me, but not for thee – a prolegomenon to any paraconsistent theory of justice

by John Holbo on April 27, 2009

I know, everyone read the New York Magazine piece with everyone singing Poor, Poor Pitiful Masters of the Universe. That was so a week ago. Thankfully, everything is back to normal. But let’s revisit ancient history. The following bit was especially wondered at (by Kevin Drum, for example):

Wall Street people are not moral idiots (most of them, anyway) — it’s not as if they’ve never pondered the fairness of their enormous salaries. “One of my relatives is a doctor, we’re both well-educated, hardworking people. And he certainly didn’t make the amount of money I made,” a former Bear Stearns senior managing director tells me. “I would be the first person to tell you his value to society, to humanity, is far greater than anything that went on in the Bear Stearns building.”

That said, he continues, “We’re in a hypercapitalistic society. No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies. Our whole moral compass has shifted about what’s acceptable or not acceptable. Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed — that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.”

This argument is like a time bomb that can only be set on a 1 second fuse, and it has all the advantages of such a device.

It’s unfair for people to complain about unfairness, because our society has a ‘moral compass’ that treats unfairness as fair. Eh.

(I suppose this feels like tu quoeque, which is at least a little bit clever, sometimes. But in this case it doesn’t even work on that level. Either the person being addressed cares about fairness, in which case they have an excellent reason to ignore you. Or the person doesn’t, in which case they have an excellent reason to ignore you.)

But there is one conceptually interesting point hereabouts that relates, perhaps, to issues that have come up in our recent discussions of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality.

Let’s start with a simple thought. Most people are ok with a spot of unfairness around the place, even ideally. Ideally? Surely not! No, I think so. Trying to blueprint a perfectly ‘fair’ society is an interesting and educational exercise. But it’s important to see, not just that the blueprint is ‘ideal’ – with all the difficulties that entails: politics the art of the possible and all – but that, even if we could have this ideal, we might prefer something else. How so? There are lots of values (of competition and risk and achievement, for example) that are only plausibly realizable in an environment in which there is some unfairness (for some values of ‘unfair’). To take a trivial example: it isn’t unreasonable to prefer poker to chess, even though there’s more room for luck in poker; hence it is, in at least one sense, less ‘fair’ as games go. Cohen emphasizes a different angle. The ‘paying off the kidnapper’ cases, which turn out to be distressingly analogous to the difference principle cases (if you buy Cohen’s argument.) Paying a kidnapper may be the prudent thing to do, in certain circumstances (think piracy cases ripped from the headlines). That doesn’t make it just or fair. Maximizing (or optimizing) the good may involve tolerating unfairness.

I’m pretty impressed by Cohen’s argument that Rawls’ Theory of Justice – justice as fairness – is really justice as unfairness. Or even: unjust unfairness that yet might (even just on paper) be preferable to any just, fair arrangement you could blueprint as an alternative. So it turns out that the objection to Rawls may run in most paradoxical fashion: the problem with justice as fairness is that we might actually want justice and fairness. Hence the alleged need for ‘rescuing’, per Cohen’s title.

But that’s not actually what I want to talk about today (although it’s sort of the reason why it’s interesting to me): it’s hard to be sort of fair. It’s like pregnant. You are or you aren’t. Well, that’s not quite right. You can be roughly fair. Fair, unlike pregnant, can be vague. But you can’t just say ‘hey, life is unfair and that’s ok’ and also, convincingly, complain when life is unfair to YOU. Or anyone else. Even altruistic kvetching about someone else’s unfair misfortune, once you’ve cheerfully tossed fairness to the winds of affirming the thrillingness of risk, or whatever, rings pretty hollow. Fairness can’t be substantially ad hoc and capricious. Because then it isn’t fair. It’s something else.

A competition in which a panel of judges has subjective leeway for scoring competitors can be roughly fair. But a competition in which the judges randomly judge half the competitors based on performance, and assign scores based on random coin flips to the other half is not even roughly fair. You might say it is para-meritocratic, or something like that. But that’s not the same as ‘fair’.

Suppose suddenly the rules change! (Possibly due to further coin-flip.) Randomly, some of the previous coin-flips will be reversed! Eh. That doesn’t really make things worse, fairness-wise. From here on out it’s Calvinball all the way down, so far as ‘fairness’ is concerned.

Now, the reason this is interesting is that, in my tolerance for a certain degree of unfairness – my feeling that there are other values that are important, too – I am not tolerating mere ‘rough’ fairness but a substantial degree of capricious ad-hocery in life’s rewards and punishments. I am like a slower motion version of the idiot in the article, in other words, so it isn’t so obvious I’m a complete moral idiot. I basically have nothing like a paraconsistent theory of fairness. But that’s what I really need.

I suppose what people mostly do is just anchor at some point, giving them some basis for calling departures from it ‘unfair’. And then invent some story about how that point had some utilitarian merits, even though that would be hard to prove or disprove. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

{ 44 comments }

1

John Holbo 04.27.09 at 9:25 am

OK, it’s obvious that someone is going to make the objection that, actually, it IS obvious that I’m a complete moral idiot. So let me just go on the record as being the first one to see that this is an obvious way to make fun of my post.

2

dave 04.27.09 at 9:48 am

banned commenter

3

JoB 04.27.09 at 9:58 am

Well, John, he’s the moral idiot but you’re rather emotional about it. He’s right that the system is to blame and he’s wrong to use the blatant blameworthiness of the system as an excuse. But I still fail to see how anybody will be better by interpreting fairness as an emotion. What are you going to do: excommunicate those from society that are not ‘true’ to the ‘right’ standard? Who’s going to judge and by what guideline? Some new version of the 10 commandments? Probably I am the idiot here for failing to see any rationality in what Cohen on CT is described to hold – an idiot that is dangerous to fairness and that ultimately will have to be shut up for the good of the egalitarian society.

(yes that was hyperbole, I do not believe for a moment the last sentences are your position, but I’d be much interested to hear how the hyperbole can be avoided on your account …)

4

dsquared 04.27.09 at 10:38 am

The more I read of the public statements of other financial professionals on the effects of the financial crisis, the happier I am with my own policy of shutting the fuck up. The Wall Street guy’s original mistake is the first move in the conjuring trick – the initial assumption that anyone wants to hear what he has to say about bonuses.

5

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.09 at 10:42 am

But tolerating substantial degree of unfairness (and we all are) is a far cry from insisting that pointing out to this unfairness is unfair. I don’t think it’s anything like a slower motion version of the idiot in the article.

6

JoB 04.27.09 at 11:09 am

Henri, assuming that that was directed at me: you’re right – my interest is not in denouncing the post as unfair but in understanding what the touted Cohen-alternative concretely is about.

PS: by the way, the idiot has a point: the system should be such that ex-presidents should not be cashing in on their presidencies – you can’t mend it by isolating financial professionals

7

Mack 04.27.09 at 12:04 pm

For all your big fancy words ‘n’ all (oh, did you misspell ‘tu quoque’?), “fair” is a plaint for the playground, too slippery to apply to adult society. Sure we strive for equality under the law but that’s as far as we can realistically take it. It’s ultimately pointless to debate fairness, because the list of exceptions includes, well, practically everything. Tooth and claw, anyone?

8

Salient 04.27.09 at 12:11 pm

Randomly, some of the previous coin-flips will be reversed! Eh. That doesn’t really make things worse, fairness-wise. From here on out it’s Calvinball all the way down, so far as ‘fairness’ is concerned.

I disagree with this notion. One characteristic of a ‘fair’ society is predictability. All else being equal, the introduction of additional entropy reduces fairness: arbitrary change from an established system, even an arbitrary established system, is liable to be unfair. In order for a rules change to itself be fair, it must (at least) stand a reasonable chance of improving the net fairness of the system (howsoever that is judged).

So, e.g., even in a system in which wealth has been rather capriciously distributed, I would say that randomly selecting two very wealthy people and swapping their assets is unfair: it produces no net social improvement, and increases entropy in the system.

And, in direct response to the article, I thought this was the most telling comment from the piece: No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee.

Untrue and untrue.

9

Rich Puchalsky 04.27.09 at 12:40 pm

John, these analyses that you make sometimes work — e.g. Donner Party conservatism, even though that’s not your preferred phrase — but often they don’t. When they don’t, it’s usually because you overinterpret someone’s rhetorical flourish. Sometimes someone happens to use a word of philosophical interest within a context that really doesn’t mean anything about the word in any serious sense.

I don’t think that this person is really saying anything about fairness. Or rather, if you do take it to be about fairness, you immediately get the bomb with the one second fuse. He’s saying something about social norms. You could rephrase it as a Burkean argument, say: “Yes, society is unfair, and rewards are out of all proportion to the quality of work, education needed, or the effects of the work. But that’s how society is set up. Who knows what would happen if we tried to rationalize it [Burkean boilerplate etc.]”.

He doesn’t really say that. He puts in “Our whole moral compass has shifted about what’s acceptable or not acceptable”, which is just fatuous nonsense, flattering people about the good old days — America always was sympathetic to great wealth, no matter how acquired. And he doesn’t have the explicitly Burkean bit. But when he writes “But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much”, the only way that makes sense is as an appeal to an existing social norm. And as such, it sort of works, or at least it works better than your caricature does. He’s not defending something about fairness, really. He’s saying something like “I can see how it’s really unfair to keep gay people from marrying each other. But that’s always how it’s been.”

10

CK Dexter 04.27.09 at 1:01 pm

“I suppose what people mostly do is just anchor at some point, giving them some basis for calling departures from it ‘unfair’. And then invent some story about how that point had some utilitarian merits, even though that would be hard to prove or disprove.”

That sounds exactly right. Though you might change it to: “_because_ that would be hard to prove or disprove.”

I am unsure how to pronounce, or rather, hear, the sentence, “Eh.” I am used to the Canadian usage (which translates as: “These are not assertions? Please don’t hit me?”), which doesn’t seem to fit the contexts in which you’ve used it.

I thought Mr. Wall Street’s point was pretty 101: let the sinner throw the first stone at glass jesuses or whatever. You’re unfair, I’m unfair, neither of us have any business complaining unless we both change our ways. He’s not saying it’s unfair _to him_ (he realizes he has, as it were, given up the right to such claims), but to the fair, if there are any.

11

dr 04.27.09 at 1:05 pm

Fair in poker and fair in chess are different, and fairness isn’t even an important value in games like hide the poker.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.09 at 1:21 pm

But when he writes “But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much”, the only way that makes sense is as an appeal to an existing social norm.

I don’t think there is a social taboo on saying that Wall Street is paid too much. Not outside of a few city blocks in downtown Manhattan, anyway.

13

Rich Puchalsky 04.27.09 at 1:42 pm

Henri, Wall Street has been paid too much for decades. Social inequality is going up in the U.S., yes, so they are even more overpaid, but really, they have been throughout the working life of anyone working there. And society, other than a few grumbles, has never done anything about it. Nor does society really seem to care in many other cases in which people are overpaid.

That’s what he seems to be saying, under any charitable construction. Not something abstract about fairness. Something about how U.S. society is presently constituted.

14

Paul 04.27.09 at 1:55 pm

Life by it’s very nature is unfair. Live with it and get on with living !

15

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.09 at 2:47 pm

Actually, it sounds like one of those things where you shouldn’t criticize X unless you condemn Y and Z. In this case it’s Julia Roberts and ex-presidents.

16

Rich Puchalsky 04.27.09 at 3:10 pm

If the guy’s just making a facile excuse, why bother to write about it? That’s what people usually comment on John’s post of this type. But it appears to me that if he’s saying anything worth writing about, it appears to be basically Burkean.

17

novakant 04.27.09 at 3:49 pm

Actually studios complain about inflated actors’ salaries all the time, it’s a big factor in budgets, but he’s correct in that the average Joe seems to be just fine with that. Similarly, I could care less if there are people in this world with a net worth of a 100 or even 10.000 times that of mine, as long as they do their jobs right, their wealth doesn’t translate directly into power and I’m able to make a decent living – money isn’t everything. The trouble is, that the current crisis was at least partially caused by the hunt for ever bigger profits and bonuses and that this had a direct effect on the economic circumstances of the average citizen – a fact that the guy from Wall Street conveniently overlooks.

18

Ted Lemon 04.27.09 at 4:17 pm

Fairness is like objectivity – something that people think is real, which is actually completely impossible. Fairness is always defined subjectively, so if you think an outcome is fair and I agree with you, what has happened is not that the outcome was fair, but rather that you and I happen to agree, in that one situation, on what a fair outcome was. Fairness is often used as a justification for why a poor outcome is nevertheless okay – it was only fair, after all. Fairness is also used as a justification for complaint when an outcome wasn’t satisfactory – that wasn’t fair!

Think about it this way: would you rather live in a completely fair society, where no-one prospers, or a completely unfair society, where everyone prospers? If you answered the latter, then you’re admitting that fairness has no reality. It offers us no guidance. It is simply a red herring that distracts us from the responsibility to actually behave, ourselves, like moral actors.

19

The Raven 04.27.09 at 7:41 pm

“Wall Street people are not moral idiots” See. Let’s not make this too complicated. The world financial system, and many of the people who operate it, have been corrupted. We don’t need to know what perfect justice (or “fairness”) is to improve matters.

20

JoB 04.27.09 at 8:02 pm

Henri @ 12, critize on but if you condemn X you condemn Z (I’ll leave Julia out of it, as people are rightly more interested in her wardrobe than in her opinion & she seems the happier for it). The thing to condemn is that it was is A-OK to get all the money and determine how the money should be got – bankers and ex-heads of state are in the same boat.

Do we really believe the better people won’t go for responsibility if they do not earn as much as A-Rod?

PS: don’t get me started on Bono and Bob Geldof

21

Salient 04.27.09 at 9:12 pm

would you rather live in a completely fair society, where no-one prospers, or a completely unfair society, where everyone prospers?

I would argue that “everyone prospers” is inherently very fair: for such a society to manage to be unfair, there must be some unbelievably traumatizing problems incurred, e.g. gross and untenable violations of personal liberty, in which case, no thanks.

22

kth 04.28.09 at 2:05 am

Someone who protests “who ever said life was fair” is rarely making that point disinterestedly. More often, he/she is implicitly protesting the unfairness of attempts to ameliorate the (ostensibly natural) form of unfairness. And there, I guess, is the Burkean nature of the trope, that some kinds of unfairness are natural, while others are artificial and new-fangled, and that distinction alone justifies preferring the former to the latter. But it’s hard to say where the Burke stops and where the special pleading begins.

23

arc 04.28.09 at 3:37 am

Ted @ 15:

Think about it this way: would you rather live in a completely fair society, where no-one prospers, or a completely unfair society, where everyone prospers? If you answered the latter, then you’re admitting that fairness has no reality.

How on earth does that follow? Surely you’re only admitting that prosperity is more important to you than fairness.

More facetiously:
Would you rather lose all your friends or all your limbs? If you choose the later, then you’re admitting your friends have no reality. (i.e. you only have imaginary friends?)

24

arc 04.28.09 at 3:53 am

I broadly agree with Rich @ 8. The guy’s statement is a bit unclear, and I think it’s a bit silly to take it as a serious statement of a thought-through ethical standpoint. But in so far as he has a point, the way I read it, was not that it was saying that the system was globally ‘fair’ because of ‘social norms’ somehow, but that as an isolated accusation it’s unfair to pick out Wall Street alone as paying people too much, when everyone else is doing it too.

The unfairness of levelling the accusation solely at Wall Street isn’t unfairness in a social equity sense, it’s unfair in the sense that you’re being inconsistent and arbitrary with your complaints. Just because you’ve decided you’re okay with rampant economic unfairness doesn’t mean you also have to accept people leveling blame in an inconsistent and arbitrary manner.

You could almost take his statement as a call for consistency – you’ve got to criticise all aspects of people being paid these insane amounts of money, instead of just one. But he doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of complaining about both Wall Street and Hollywood.

25

ChrisB 04.28.09 at 4:35 am

And there’s always the possibility of designing a world that’s deliberately and inconsistently randomly unfair. It can be done: see Borges’ The Lottery of Babel, where misfortunes and fortunes alike were legislated to go by the throw of the dice.

26

John Holbo 04.28.09 at 8:13 am

Rich, it doesn’t sound to me as though the guy is making a Burkean point at all. I don’t know whether what he is doing is interesting or not, but it’s a pretty classic. (Think Thrasymachus trying to derive various oughts from alleged is’es. And then whining that it’s unfair for Socrates always to be trying to grab his argument from the most awkward angle.)

What’s interesting to me is not so much the guy – he’s just spectacle – but the puzzle of trying to have half a theory of fairness. Or a theory of how things could be half fair.

27

Joe S. 04.28.09 at 11:57 am

Rich at #9 and arc at #24 are onto something–the Wall Street guy really isn’t talking about fairness. And John (#26) is entitled to use that idiot’s comment as a springboard for his theories of fairness. But I think that Wall Street guy is worth parsing on his own terms: not for what he has to say about fairness, but because I think he is unconsciously illustrating an important facet of human psychology.

I read WSguy as saying that he is no Iago twirling his mustachios because evil is fun. He says, in justification, that he is merely conforming to prevalent social norms. And his statement of fact is correct. But what he is saying is not justificatory. There are very few Iagos: many fewer Iagos than criminals. Maybe Dick Cheney is an Iago (although I doubt it); certainly Jeffrey Dahmer and likely Roy Cohn. Not many others. I’ve dealt with financial criminals; many are nice enough fellows who were merely doing what their peers were doing and just happened to have gotten caught. It’s particularly sad when the criminal is very young, and has no work experience outside of his rotten shop.
But although sad, that is no justification.

“Nice people do it:” a common moral idiocy.

28

Rich Puchalsky 04.28.09 at 2:22 pm

“What’s interesting to me is not so much the guy – he’s just spectacle – but the puzzle of trying to have half a theory of fairness. Or a theory of how things could be half fair.”

You can by distinguishing between fairness in an absolute sense and fairness within what you take to be the implicit rules. If the person-as-spectacle is saying anything, that’s it. Sure, he says, in an absolute sense it’s unfair for the speculator to make more than the doctor. But our society has a rule that when people can cash in and get overpaid, that’s all right. Everyone knows that it’s unfair (sense 1) but it’s fair because it’s how our society is set up (sense 2).

You can treat this as either vapid special pleading — in which case, why bother — or most charitably as sensitivity to historical contingency. There are all sorts of cultural elements that are not rationalized according to the current meaning of “rational”, but are hangovers from past times, or unthought communal reactions to events or conditions. People can argue that their duty towards fairness is towards the latter. That’s where Burkean ideas inevitably creep in, even if this guy has never heard of Burke.

29

Maynard Handley 04.28.09 at 5:25 pm

Just stating
“No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. “
doesn’t make it so. There are plenty of people in the world who complain about these facts.

30

Maynard Handley 04.28.09 at 5:31 pm


Henri, Wall Street has been paid too much for decades. Social inequality is going up in the U.S., yes, so they are even more overpaid, but really, they have been throughout the working life of anyone working there. And society, other than a few grumbles, has never done anything about it. Nor does society really seem to care in many other cases in which people are overpaid.

That’s what he seems to be saying, under any charitable construction. Not something abstract about fairness. Something about how U.S. society is presently constituted.

This comes across as basically the same argument as (saying in 1980)
“If South African blacks hate apartheid so much, why they don’t vote for another government”?

US society, as it is presently constituted, has its culture/media run by and for large corporations, and its political system driven by money. And we are supposed to then be happy with the resulting system as one designed to funnel money to the rich?

31

Mark T 04.28.09 at 7:42 pm

I like this post very much. Everyone is born into a world with unequal conditions and there is no ability to reach an end state in which all of those conditions are equalized, other than the equality that follows death. Inequality is inevitable. No one who argues for reducing inequality has come up with either proof that it can be eliminated or a coherent proof of what level of inequality is the just one. I have not even seena coherent account of what inequality is. Fundamentally, moral arguments about distribution are just tools in a battle between two groups within the upper half of society that have different tastes and preferences and desires for relative status, prestige and power. One will have a better chance at establishing a theory of justice based on liberty than on equality.

32

Donald A. Coffin 04.28.09 at 7:52 pm

See Krugman’s column today for a point of view…

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27krugman.html

33

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.28.09 at 8:44 pm

One will have a better chance at establishing a theory of justice based on liberty than on equality.

Right, rich and poor are free to sleep under a bridge; that’s what justice is all about.

34

Jacob T. Levy 04.29.09 at 12:36 am

“Calvinball all the way down”

John, can I start writing into my grant proposals “pay stipend to Holbo once a year to read all my papers and come up with witty, insightful, memorable, occasionally-pop-cultural phrasings of their ideas for me to use”?

35

joel hanes 04.29.09 at 1:46 am

Boy, I’m hesitant to speak up in this gathering of intellectual lights … but here goes.

It is my impression that there is available, from experimental economics, a working negative definition of “fair enough”, which is roughly “not so unfair that the proles revolt”.

There’s an experiment by Brosnan and DeWaal in which two brown capuchin monkeys must cooperate to get a treat. The two monkeys are separated, but can see each other. You rig the thing so that if both monkeys press the switch while the light is on, each of them gets a treat.

Now, monkeys value various treats differently: a grape is much preferred over a slice of cucumber.
If the treats are randomly awarded, so that each monkey sometimes gets a grape, sometimes gets cucumber, and sometimes gets nothing, monkeys cooperate enthusiastically and consistently.
If the treats are consistently and grossly one-sided, so that one of the monkeys always gets grapes, while the other always gets cucumbers, there comes a day beyond which the cucumber-receiving monkey may begin to refuse to cooperate, and in effect decides he would rather have nothing than have an unfairly-distributed something.

From this, we learn that monkeys are not rational utility maximizers, and that their apparently inborn aversion to rank unfairness can outweigh their desire for a treat.

If I remember correctly, related experiments on students show that humans too resent structural unfairness, and may eventually refuse to cooperate with a grossly unfair regime, even if that refusal harms their own interests.

I am not yet seeing news items about pitchforks, torches, tumbrils, and guilliotines on Wall Street, but maybe it’s just because the masters of Wall Street are separated from the rest of us by something less transparent than a sheet of glass.

Links to
New Scientist on Brosnan and DeWaal’s experiment
Wikipedia on inequity aversion in monkeys

36

John Holbo 04.29.09 at 2:46 am

Joe S: “I read WSguy as saying that he is no Iago twirling his mustachios because evil is fun. He says, in justification, that he is merely conforming to prevalent social norms. And his statement of fact is correct. But what he is saying is not justificatory.”

Yes, this is a good way to put it. That’s the point of my Calvinball analogy (thanks, Jacob!) He recognizes that the norms he follows are very artificial. (Nothing Burkean about it: nothing ancient, and no presumption that they have some mysterioud, hidden, tested goodness or wisdom.) They are just a big fat IS. And all you can say in response is: that’s not a reason. There’s a difference between arbitrary anchoring and Burkeanism, in other words. (Or at least there had better be, if there is anything to Burkeanisn.)

37

arc 04.29.09 at 6:00 am

MarkT @ 31
Why is it necessary to prove that(1) inequality can be eliminated or (2)establish what level of inequality is just, or (3) provide a ‘coherent’ (and presumably also precise, and therefore probably extensive) account of it before trying to address it, at least in cases where it’s severe and eg? Presumably you’re not going to argue that we are completely in the dark about inequality – as though it could turn out quite to our surprise that everyone in, say, India actually does have material equality. It’s as evident as anything can be that if there are large numbers of people living in slums without any money and scarce sanitation, and smaller numbers of people who own companies, several cars and houses, that individuals in the society in question do not have material equality with one another.

On the other hand, do you have a proof that all can be free of everything that limits their liberty? Or what levels of liberty are just? Or even a coherent account of liberty?

It seems to me that we’re in a much better position with material equality. We can at least measure material wealth – the dollar value of income and assests is a good first approximation, and there are lots of more elaborate methods involving baskets of goods and things like that. How would you go about measuring liberty?

(I’m sure people have tried to do exactly that, but it seems like a notion far more up for grabs than equality is )

38

Rich Puchalsky 04.29.09 at 12:55 pm

“There’s a difference between arbitrary anchoring and Burkeanism”

I don’t think there’s a great difference. Part of Burkeanism has always been that swift social change is bad, especially rationalized schemes for social change. That means that you can recognize the current state of affairs as arbitrary, possibly even not very good, and still caution people against trying to fix it.

Burkeanism has never been a very good argument for anything. It’s still one of the only ones the conservatives have. If you’re really interested in a half-fair system, appeals like that is how they are done. I, for one, think that an appeal to a social norm is a perfectly respectable pragmatic argument — most of what people actually do seems to be following social norms, rather than reasoning out what they should do.

39

John Holbo 04.29.09 at 1:30 pm

Burke is trying to justify the social norms by arguing that they must encode wisdom. The Wall Streeter isn’t trying to say there’s anything good about the social norms in question. He’s explicitly not doing so. All he has to say about them, in fact, is that he recognizes they are unfair. Which just goes to show that, in fact, he DOES have a notion of fairness that is independent of these alleged norms. Which leaves it completely mysterious how the norms could be justificatory.

But obviously what this jerk said off the cuff doesn’t really matter. Burke is an attempt to justify one’s relatively arbitrary act of anchoring. I’m merely pointing out why it’s necessary. Because everyone wants to help themselves to fairness, but they really only want a paraconsistent version. So there needs to be something that keeps it from devolving into Calvinball.

It may as well be that there is (or may be) some inherent merit to some Burkean arguments. But that’s sort of a separate question.

40

Ted Lemon 04.29.09 at 3:44 pm

arc@23 yeah, a few minutes after I wrote that I realized that I’d expressed myself poorly, and pretty much came up with the same critique you did, although I failed to conjure up quite so eloquent an illustrating counterexample. Unfortunately, the comment, once written, cannot be unwritten…

The point I intended to make in that paragraph is that although we talk a lot about fairness as if there were in fact a theory of fairness that we agreed upon, and that we could put into practice, in fact there is no such theory.

Rich@28 proposes two different theories of fairness: first, fairness is something that “everybody agrees on,” and second, that what fairness is is that the rules were followed. In either case, fairness isn’t a theory. In the first case, like Salient@21’s definition, it’s an observation about a situation, not a theory. In the second case, the theory is the set of rules. If fairness is just that the rules were followed, then there’s no need to bring fairness into it – at best, fairness is just that the rules, whatever they are, were followed.

I don’t think it’s an accident that nobody here has actually proposed a coherent theory of fairness more detailed than that “the rules were followed.” When you say “fairness,” everyone knows what you mean. But if you ask them to express a theory of fairness, they will be unable to do so. Their actual notion of fairness is something that they can identify after the fact. But if they were to try to express beforehand what their theory of fairness was, it would be the case that whatever they expressed, you would subsequently find cases that they thought were unfair, but that met whatever constraints they’d described. And of course finding two people who will agree in every case as to whether a particular action or outcome was fair will be quite difficult.

So the fairness that we refer to when we talk about a theory of fairness simply doesn’t exist. It can’t provide us with any moral guidance. It is a red herring. The word “fairness” has no place in rational discourse, other than to snooker someone into agreeing to an outcome with which they are otherwise unhappy.

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arc 04.29.09 at 11:39 pm

my comment @ 37, lines 3-4, was supposed to read ‘at least in cases where it’s severe and egregious?’

Ted: sure, it’s difficult to give a satisfactory theory of fairness. But what you say about fairness is true of all moral terms, like ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘just’ etc. People use them frequently and appear to know what they mean by them, but few can express a theory about what they mean. Even those that say they have a theory (utilitarianism is pretty common, even amongst people who have never heard the word before) often what they’re really doing is using that theory to give post-factum justifications for things they believe intuitively. And of course there’s no universal disagreement on theories.

So if we’re to follow your advice across the board, it would seem that all moral terms have no place in rational discourse, and even more strangely, none of them can provide us with any moral guidance.

However, things aren’t as bad as all that. As I indicated @ 37, just because there’s no theory that’s widely accepted doesn’t mean there isn’t broad agreement on what counts as ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘fair’, ‘just’, etc. in many cases, where the situation is clear-cut. No-one thinks keeping your daughter in a basement for decades is good. We don’t need a theory to tell us that. We don’t need two people to agree on every case. All we need is is broad agreement on the most severe and egregious cases.

To be sure, fair distribution of goods in society is one of the more contentious issues, and much less clear than, say, the example of material equality I was giving before. But you don’t seem to be limiting your criticism of the notion of fairness to just this case. Also, I suspect that the plurality of people (if not the majority) on this forum do in fact share much the same intuitive notion of fairness, and I suspect many of them would be quite capable of producing arguments for it. Just because they aren’t posted here doesn’t mean the accounts don’t exist – and it’s not really an appropriate medium for a full treatment anyway. I suspect A Theory of Justice might exceed the comment word limit by a little bit.

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Ted Lemon 04.30.09 at 5:20 am

arc@41, no, it’s not true of all moral terms. For instance, the golden rule is easily expressed, and is the basis for many theories of morality. You can use subjective terms like “good,” “right,” “just,” and “fair” *in* the golden rule, and in that context they make sense. Because now you are asking, “would I feel that this action were unfair, if you did it to me?” And if your answer is “yes,” and you follow the golden rule, you would not do it. That’s moral guidance.

But you are using it in the opposite sense–you propose that “fair” can be defined in a way that will be generally agreed upon. It is this sense of the word “fair” that I am claiming doesn’t have any meaningful existence. The fact that you feel that it would take many pages to enumerate such a theory is precisely the point. In that case you don’t have a theory. You just have a lot of data points for which you presume, without knowing, that there is a common unifying theory.

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arc 04.30.09 at 7:18 am

Ted:

I’m not clear on what you’re requiring of someone who wants to use ‘fair’ in moral discourse. You seem to be wanting them to provide a single theory or a definition which everyone (or at least most people) will agree on, and you also seem to be expecting the theory or definition to be short, because you think that a long account will be just ‘a lot of data points’.

If those really are your requirements, then sure, there isn’t such a thing as a theory of fairness that meet them. But there isn’t an account of any moral term that will meet them, either – at least, no term that will be widely accepted as having any use.

Let’s take your example of the golden rule. The golden rule itself I wouldn’t say is a term, it’s more of a principle or, indeed, a rule. But people certainly offer it as a theory of, say, right – it is right to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and wrong to do otherwise.

Now, this certainly meets your brevity requirement, no-one could argue with that. But not everyone will agree on that definition. For one thing, it’s open to obvious objections – what I like having done unto me is not necessarily what others like having done unto them. I like being kept up to all hours of the night by my friends, but they may not feel similarly. It may not even be safe – I would have people feed me food with lots of peanuts in it, but this may be deadly to someone who’s allergic to peanuts.

Now, obviously you can say “no, no, it doesn’t mean that, you need to think what you’d have done unto you if you were in their shoes – if you didn’t like staying up late”. But then you’re elaborating the definition, aren’t you – elaborating in order to fit a “data point” : an intuitive idea that we need to factor in relevant details of the other person’s situation. And making clear what relevant factors are going to need to be taken into account will complicate things still further. So you’ll end up with a long, complex account, which may satisfy you but won’t satisfy everyone.

For another thing, other people have completely different bases for their ethical systems, such as utilitarians, who don’t care what people would have done unto them so long as the greatest good is got for the greatest number, so they’re not going to agree on this definition of ‘right’ either.

I suppose if we were willing to say the golden rule is indeed an ethical term, then the same objections would apply, it’s just that the argument will be now over whether it’s of any value. I’m sure it’s possible to define some terms with absolute rigour, but there’s not much point if no-one wants to use them!

Moral terms aren’t the only terms that are difficult to define even though everyone’s happy to use them. Most words in natural languages do not have rigorous definitions. There’s a famous quote about the word ‘time’ being understood by everyone but no-one could give you an account of it, but we could also think of terms like “red”, “inefficient” or “England” or, as another thread here shows, “torture”. Even something like ‘mass’ or ‘length’ prove to be difficult to give accounts of! When people start questioning these sorts of things adequate accounts are difficult to achieve and end up being quite involved.

My proposal is not at all that “fair” can be defined in a way that will be generally agreed upon. In fact, I think this is impossible. The more substantive the definition the less people will agree with it. My suggestion is actually the opposite: we don’t need such a definition in order to be able to use the word together in a useful fashion. It doesn’t matter what we think the definition is of “red” is, so long as we use it to describe roughly the same set of things. Some people won’t be able to give a definition of the word at all, but if they can use it appropriately it doesn’t matter. There will be disagreement about borderline cases, but that’s OK, if we’re only worried in the first instance about things which are clearly red. There will be disagreement about what makes them red, but that doesn’t matter either – a rigorous definition might be interesting from a theoretical standpoint, but from a practical perspective of discussing with ordinary people about what to do with the red things it could only be of use to sort out borderline cases – but we’re not going to get universal agreement about those.

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Ted Lemon 04.30.09 at 3:49 pm

The thing about a moral principle like the golden rule is that it’s practical – you can apply it. You really can’t apply a principle of fairness, because there is no such principle. It’s certainly true that just because I think that some action would be fair if it were done to me, does not mean that the person to whom I am doing it will agree that it is fair. But at least I have some basis for deciding how to act in this case.

You say that utilitarians don’t care what people would have done unto them, but this can’t be the case. Because they want the greatest good for the greatest number, it is crucially important that they have some idea of what that is. So I would expect that someone who honestly wants that would be deeply concerned with what people would have done unto them, even if their moral theory says that in some cases it would be wrong to do it, for the good of the whole.

This ties back to your comment, @37, where you propose that even if we don’t know precisely what inequality is, we can still see when a particular situation is unequal. Sure, that’s true. But then what? First, is the inequality a problem? If so, what is the solution? To make things more equal? The middle class in India has a serious problem with obesity right now, as does the middle class in the U.S. Would more equality be better? In India I can build and live in a hut made of pipes and plastic sheets which, while not a palace, will keep the rain off me. Here in the U.S. if I attempt to build and live in such a structure, the building department will force me to tear it down. Is more equality better in this case?

You criticize my demand that a moral theory be simple, but if it is not simple, how is it a theory and not just a set of case-by-case guidelines? What I really mean by simple of course is that it be generally applicable; the reason I criticize a lack of simplicity is that if you have to enumerate every possible circumstance, what you are expressing is not general – it only applies to those specific circumstances you have enumerated. Is there a theory behind it that you are unable to articulate? I don’t know, because you haven’t articulated it.

In your inequality example, where is the underlying problem that you are trying to solve? What is your guiding moral principle?

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