Saturday, February 03, 2007

Splitting Chores - but which ones?

Suppose that two people living together have agreed to a fair way of distributing the necessary chores. There is a prior question: how are they to decide which chores need doing in the first place? Suppose they diverge greatly in their tolerance of general messiness: one must have everything spick and span, whereas the other sees no point to tidying at all. Does fairness require the happy slob to pitch in, or the neat freak to take care of their own fussy preferences? Or is there no determinate answer to be given here?

One might argue that domestic harmony requires cohabitors to look out for each others' needs. Any chore deemed "necessary" by either person is ipso facto necessary for their household, so the slob should get scrubbing.

Alternatively, the two individuals are meant to co-operate for their mutual benefit. So it's unfair to force both to work towards an end that only one of them cares about. The only chores necessary for the duo, together, are those that advance their common goals. If one has extra preferences of their own, they should take care of those themselves.

Or does it depend on the particular details? Perhaps there are objective facts about what chores need doing for a good household, regardless of the particular opinions of its inhabitants. In some cases the less fussy one is failing to meet these minimal requirements, whereas in other cases the more fussy one may be demanding more than is reasonable. (This standard could be culturally relative, determined by "society" somehow, whilst still being 'objective' at the individual level.) I can't see much reason to favour this view, but it does seem assumed in common discourse, where 'slobs' and 'neat freaks' are considered defective for deviating from the norm.

Finally, the moral point of view may entirely abstain from recommending either option over the other. It's simply up to those involved to sort it out to their satisfaction. There are no external standards to guide them at all.

What do you reckon?


  1. It is probably hard for a person who is more tolerant of mess to know when a place is "messy" or do do a good job of cleaning it. Also it is hard to measure out the labour fairly since each side doesn't know how much effort the other must apply to do whatever it is.

    So while i think option one is philosophically good I think option 2 works better in practice.

  2. This is a tricky conundrum. Having lived with over 20 roommates in my years, I've had many trials with this dilemma. Generally, the best tactic is to only live with people who have an identical tolerance for mess and noise, but that's not always possible.

    I've found when identical tolerances can't be found, then it's preferable to be the messier person of any duo. I'd much rather be the "naggee" than the "nagger." Begging forgiveness for my slights takes up far less energy than trying to get someone to conform to my standards.

    It's a difficult situation because it's really hard to determine what's a "normal" standard of cleanliness. My guy hides apple cores in the computer desk to avoid making the long journey to the compost pot in the kitchen with them. When I complain, it's up for debate whether or not my standards are outrageous or reasonable. I kid you not!

    So my stance is from Mill's harm theory: Your rights end where my nose begins - in a physical and olfactory sense. If it smells or is in my direct route (I could trip on it and harm myself), then it must be moved by the mess maker prior to being offensive. Joint messes have a joint obligation (dishes).

    If standards above and beyond preventing physical harm (including potential respiratory issues, bug infestations, and nausea) come into play in a household (e.g. my sister who thinks all walls must be washed weekly), then those chores are the responsiblity of the clean-freak.

    Clean less, read and write more.

  3. This is indeed a tricky subject. I was actually intending to ask a similiar question myself; I don't know if you've been following the thread and comments at crooked timber ( where this issue has come up in one form or another.

    I tend to find that I'm doing roughly half of the housework that I think actually needs doing. The problem is, because my partner thinks that more than this needs doing, she ends up doing the rest; and therefore more than half of the housework that actually gets done.

    The solution? I'm not sure. I wonder if I should be doing more out of a sense of fairness, but should also commit some energy to convincing her that she doesn't need to do quite so much.

    Sage raises the issue of what a "normal" standard of cleanliness is. I wonder if some government bodies/companies have internal standards on this sort of thing, and potentially even some justification. There must be some market research in the area of household cleaning?

  4. I think most governmental bodies would err on the side of over-cleaning. And could market research be free from market-driven bias (cleaning product manufacturers, etc...)?

    My clean-freak sister has two kids that both suffer from asthma. I actually wonder to what extent excessive cleaning (above and beyond basics necessary to prevent harm) in fact causes harm. How much cleaning products can we inhale before our bodies protest? I typically just use baking soda and vinegar for most jobs. Bleach that runs down the drain harms the sewage-eating bacteria, so I never touch the stuff. How white do our whites really need to be?

    However, after further consideration, I have one chore that isn't really necessary from a physical harm perspective: laundry. I wash clothes with just a small bit of dirt on them that wouldn't hurt anybody to be worn again. I could also include preventing harm to social status. But that might open things up too broadly if we all clean our homes to impress others, as if the Queen might drop in at any time.

  5. Compromise is a good word for this. It is sort of the art of life.

    Choice and decision are of course the issue. If the choice is made to continue on with a partner or others then within that choice compromise need be effected so force and warfare does not result. What price will one pay to maintain peace and harmony. This whole issue is the whole business of live everywhere.

    I think the answer lies in making good choices in whom one associates with--or suffer!

  6. I'll vote for the first argument: that any chore deemed necessary by one housemate deserves their mutual contribution. That's simply what it means to be a considerate roommate.

    The other argument suggests that the two housemates only have to cooperate on chores that advance their common goals. But being considerate of the other person's concerns (and standards of cleanliness) is itself a common goal - thus leading me back to the first argument.

    Now if one housemates prefers tidiness and the other housemate prefers used dishes and heaps of dirty laundry, so that there's a real difference in substantive goals, then well, better hope that the lease is up soon.

    Good question. As the "nagger" in my house (could you tell?), it's omething I think about a lot.


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