Sunday, June 17, 2007

Doing Your Fair Share

Fairness seems to require that, in collaborative endeavours, each contributor pitches in with an equal contribution. But in what sense? Consider the old problem of household chores. We're told to split them "50/50", but what exactly are we measuring here?

Simply doing half of the listed chores is no guarantee of fairness, since some jobs may require more work than others. Similarly for spending equal time: a long pleasant job might reasonably be preferred over a short and nasty one. And what if the two people differ in how long it takes them to do a job, which value 'counts'? (Note also the moral hazard: if one spends all day mowing the lawn at a snail's pace, does that get them off the dishes?)

Perhaps what we seek is the nebulous measure of "effort". But, as in schooling, this incentivizes incompetence. (If you're going to be rewarded for your hapless "efforts" regardless, why bother taking steps to improve the efficacy of your future efforts?)

So, it seems like there's not actually any objective fact of the matter, in such a case, as to what a "fair contribution" would be. At least, if a problem can't be quantified, then there's no such thing as "50%" of it. Absent any such ideal result, the dispute must be resolved by bargaining, not inquiry. So, we may think, anything goes so long as both parties are happy with it. But what about lowered expectations or 'adaptive preferences' as a result of exploitation? Wouldn't that still be problematic? Arguably, justice requires that both parties begin with roughly equal bargaining power. (Having said that, I think it's worth emphasizing that - as a general rule - the injustice resides in the background conditions, and not in the mutually beneficial "exploitative bargain" per se.) Perhaps more importantly, in this context, decency requires giving due weight to one's partner's interests too.

In other words, perhaps some contributions are problematic, not due to the resulting distribution per se, but because they indicate selfishness, "free riding", or lack of concern for one's co-contributors. It's not as though there's some quantity (whether fixed or variable) that each person ought to contribute. It's more a matter of character, and dedication to the common project. So perhaps virtue theory would offer a better ethical analysis of this issue. Any suggestions?


  1. Fairness seems to require that, in collaborative endeavours, each contributor pitches in with an equal contribution.

    I think people sometimes give equality as the standard; but I think it's not the only one given. On one view, and one that seems implicit in many of the ways we talk about fairness, fairness requires not that the contribution be equal but that it be proportionate to ability and significant up to some satisficing standard relative to that ability. Thus, for instance, of John and Joe want each to make a fair contribution to dinner, fairness will require considering not merely that John and Joe are both partaking of the meal, but that John's a millionaire and Joe's penniless; the fair result might well be for John to pay the whole thing. (Cf. claims sometimes made when talking about progressive income taxes about how they make sure that the rich 'pay their fair share'.)

    This obviously has the advantage over the equality standard that it recognizes that fairness sometimes requires that one party do more work, or that one party do one thing and the other do some other, perhaps incommensurable, thing. I do think exactly the same questions arise, though.

    I'm attracted to the virtue theory suggestion. But perhaps one can do it in some other way. Thus, the reason it would be fair for John the millionaire to pay for dinner is that (1) both John and Joe are receiving a benefit (each other's company at dinner); (2) John has overwhelmingly greater ability to guarantee this benefit for both; and (3) Both John and Joe can reasonably regard his and Joe's place as in-principle reversible, i.e., as far as the relationship goes, the fact that John's the millionaire is incidental, since if Joe were the millionaire and John were penniless, Joe'd likely do the same, or, at least, that they both agree that John could reasonably expect him to do so. That's very, very rough, of course. But I wonder if this in-principle reversibility captures what people are really trying to get at when they talk about fairness as equality (even though they sometimes talk about it in ways inconsistent with its being so)?

  2. Sometimes poepel would talk about fairness as in - joe and jhon share dinner - jhon is a chef and he made the dinner its fair that joe pay less than 50/50 for costs.


  3. I couldn't keep my mouth shut on this one. My metaphysical realist tendencies are too loud.

    It seems very likely to me that there is an objective fact of the matter about whether someone's contribution was fair. It might be vague, or gappy--so there are cases for which there is no objective fact of the matter--but I find it hard to believe that there are not cases in which it is metaphysically settled that someone did not give a fair contribution.

    Perhaps there isn't truly 50% of a contribution(though I hold out for that possibility too). Still, even things that can't be quantified can still be equal in measure. Even for things that are not countable I can say that I have the same ____ as you, or gave the same ____ as you. And sameness will suffice for me even if it is no 50% in any real sense.

  4. Jack - good point, though any idea how we might fill in the blank in this particular case?

    Brandon - I agree that "in-principle reversibility" is a useful way of pinning down what's fair, much like the veil of ignorance. Though, if it's not too ad hoc, one might still suggest that John and Joe are contributing equal proportions of their wealth, or something along those lines.

  5. Richard,

    You've identified a problem for views on which the burdens of a collaborative effort ought to be divided fairly. But at least for individual cases (e.g. one day's worth of chores), I'm inclined to agree with Jack that there should be an objective fact of the matter about what a fair division would be. Deciding what it is in any particular case would require, as you suggest, knowing what we ought to be measuring (time spent, effort, effects on welfare...there are many possibilities).

    The more difficult problem, I think, is dealing with the notion of a fair share contribution to a long(er) term project. For example, Liam Murphy claims that beneficence requires that we contribute what would be our fair share under full compliance to aiding the world's worst off people. But, we might wonder, if I contribute what I calculate to be my fair share today, what are my obligations next week when I receive my next paycheck. How can we calculate what I ought to do using the fair share standard. One option is to simply ignore past contributions, and simply calculate my obligations in the same way as the first time around. But this seems unfair, since I did my fair share then, while others didn't. Alternatively, we could say that since I did my fair share, and since if everyone else did theirs at that time my obligations would be mimimal, if anything now, that my obligations are in fact minimal, if anything now. But this seems wrong too, since just as before I'm now in a position to do a lot of good at relatively little cost to myself. There seems not to be a good way to calculate one's fair share of a constant collective project over time.

    This would seem to be the case in the ordinary chores cases as well. If I do my fair share of the chores one week, while my housemates all fail to do theirs, it's not obvious that we can calculate what my fair share for the next week is, given that we need to catch up.

  6. A question children seem to ask is "why?" I know you want to focus on the applied aspect of the question, but I don't think one can begin measuring and weighing their contributions until something is said about this "why?" My suggestion would be contrary to the one Jack gave, forget the temptation of an objective fact of the matter and instead focus on a personal responsiveness to the task at hand. Who cares what the objective fact is when parties are happy to contribute whatever they contribute, and the jobs get done. Sure, they might be duping themselves, but from a purely utilitarian standpoint that doesn't matter so long as people don't see it as an issue. Kind of like what Brandon says, the persons involved want to contribute and whomever can, does. But at this point you have to wonder what you do about the stubborn child (of any age) who cannot or will not see why a contribution is necessary at all.

    "But it doesn't seem fair that people should be duped into doing more than they have to!" No, not objectively, but yes subjectively. And you really have to wonder about the subjects involved.

  7. Richard--I think that that is the very tough part. My intuitions say that it is a weighted average of: output, effort and perhaps some other things. If I were trying to measure fairness I would: take this weighted average of these, and then take the maximum that somone could give--their ideal effort/output. Then to say that two people contibuted the same would be to say that I actually gave some % of my ideal output/effort, and you actually gave that same % of your ideal output/effort.

    Jared--You're make believe objector is spot on: it doesn't seem fair, right or good to dupe people into doing more than their fair share. For instance, it would be egregious to dupe women (or even have them be duped) into a state where they are more or less happy doing all or nearly all of the chores in their respective households. Even if each family is happiest on the whole if the mother is doing all or nearly all of the chores, the father's contribution of almost no chores is unfair, and potentially horribly unjust. The mother's being more or less happy about doing chores, and the father's being unhappy about doing them, does not make this division of contribution fair.

    Ignoring the facts of the matter and instead focusing on the subect induces injustice and rationalizations for opression.

  8. I love it that someone's tackling this issue. My advice: just don't get married.

  9. "Egregious" least not until someone thinks its egregious. I want to stress the question, "unfair to whom?" If none of the parties feel jilted, then that's a fairly obvious case where you might say the distribution is fair, even if it is not equal. Of course it rationalizes oppression--and that's why I say, "you have to wonder about the subjects involved." A motivation to induce fairness may be a motivation to induce oppression (see, soviet collectivization in pre-Stalinist USSR). You could even take the reverse situation, someone who says, "It's not fair that I'm doing so little!" What makes him want to be a beast of burden? That which makes me question unequal distributions is not a motivation towards fairness but an aversion to "fascizing", an unwillingness to have norms arise from outside my free thought--an aversion to the doctrines of objectivity.

    What are the facts of the matter? Women get paid less in the workplace, do more house chores than men. But then someone says, "That's not fair!" I agree, but I want to know why I agree, why someone generated that opinion to begin with, and what fairness could possibly be such that I nor anyone would second guess the new distribution. But then what makes me or anyone want assurance in the new system? My sleight of hand is that, we want against our free will a system that controls us, perhaps because we're not strong enough to practice the virtue ethics Brandon gives as an example. Cf. Nietzsche on utilitarianism in The Gay Science.


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