Sunday Sermon: Balancing Acts

“That’s not fair!”

We seem to be on the fence about fairness: we want some things to be fair but not at our expense; suddenly it’s unfair to be taxed to support something we don’t agree with, when we would have happily paid the same taxes to support something we do like. I instantly spiral down into linguistic nihilism when I try to think through “what is ‘fair’?” in most cases, because all that I seem to be encountering is other people’s strongly-held opinions. But if we’re going to re-balance society, or decide who gets which slice of cake, we have to have a way of talking about what is fair.

Philosophers, of course, have spilled a lot of ink on the topic of fairness; that’s good because that’s their job. Those white towers don’t pay for themselves, after all.

Asking “what is fair?” practically amounts to asking “what is good?” or “what is right/wrong in this situation?”  I’d say that they’re variant forms of the same question, if you’re willing to grant the (circular) argument that what is fair is good, and vice-versa.

The reason I am fascinated by this question is because I reject arguments in the form of “X is good” pretty much all of the time, but I am comfortable with arguments in the form of “X seems fair/unfair in this situation.” Opinions about the truth/falsity of such arguments are something we can measure, and that seems to be driving a lot of social science research into dumb things like trolley experiments, etc. I’m a fan of Kant’s attempt to put a foundation below the golden rule* and my particular moral nihilism leads me toward the opinion that about all we can do is ask what is fair in any given situation. The reason I am comfortable with that is because the people involved in any given situation can meaningfully talk about what “fairness” means in that situation, without having to inductively argue that a certain thing must therefore be fair in all situations of the same type.

I cut you choose

I cut you choose

There are a few situations where fairness can be based on balance, basically by using game theory to reduce the complexity of the situation to where we can talk about “what is fair” without having to worry about what is fair. My favorite example is the pie-cutting algorithm: if you have two people and they are going to split a pie, one person cuts and the other person picks. So if I am the cutter, and I cut the pie obviously into one piece that is much larger, then my ‘opponent’ will choose the obviously larger piece, leaving me with the smaller piece .. and the knife.

John Rawls offered a similar approach to thinking about social equality, he called it “the Veil of Ignorance” [wikipedia]  Rawls’ argument is that we should want to live in a society in which we’d be comfortable being born into any random situation (because we will!) without being able to choose our parents. The assumption is that if there was a lot of equality – let’s say 1% of that society was disproportionately powerful and wealthy – everyone would wish to be born into the 1% – but if you’re being born randomly (because you will!) then you wouldn’t want that much equality because you’re not very likely to roll ’00’ on the “parents wealth table”  It’s similar to my thumbnail sketch of Kant that I gave elsewhere[stderr]: if we imagine that our actions change the world in which we will have to live, then there are ample reasons to want the world we will have to live in to be fair, for our own sake. Ultimately, this amounts to an appeal to the fictional “Enlightened self-interest” that consequentialists and economists are fond of; Rawls’ idea presupposes that all other things are equal, as they never are. What if the parents of the 1% tend to be more abusive or emotionally distant? There are external considerations that can never be fully enumerated or even understood, but I think Rawls (as does Kant!) offers a pretty compelling argument for fairness – at least, up until the point where we know where we’re going to stand and then we can become as rapacious and ruthless as possible. “Enlightened self-interest” would also argue that we be completely predatory on the weak once our original position is fixed.

I had a long two days of driving, a few years ago, and decided to take Rawls’ “The Law of Peoples” audiobook in the car with me. I listened to it twice, and concluded that Rawls deserved to be better-known – certainly far better known than Ayn Rand – among the political class. He says such sensible things! Of course, such sensible things must be reserved for the advantage of the “haves” so that they may justify their position relative to the “have nots.”  Which brings me to a different view of egalitarianism, one which took many years to sink in: Saul Alinsky’s sticking up for the underdog.

Alinsky’s view of fairness is to defend the “have nots” against the “haves” – to attack “the establishment” and by doing so to make it less capable, powerful, wealthy, and efficient: [alinsky]

For example, I have emphasized and re-emphasized that tactics means you do what you can with what you’ve got, and that power in the main has always gravitated towards those who have money and those whom people follow. The resources of the Have-Nots are (1) no money and (2) lots of people. All right, let’s start from there. People can show their power by voting. What else? Well, they have physical bodies. How can they use them? Now a melange of ideas begins to appear. Use the power of the law by making the establishment obey its own rules. Go outside the experience of the enemy, stay inside the experience of your people. Emphasize tactics that your people will enjoy. The threat is usually more terrifying than the tactic itself. Once all these rules and principles are festering in your imagination they grow into a synthesis.

What does that have to do with fairness? Fairness is a by-product of defending the “have nots” against the “haves” – and it’s almost Rawlsian how neatly it balances out if the “haves” insist that everything is a zero-sum game. “Fine!” say the “have nots”, “if it’s a zero sum game, we accept that we are taking from you. That’s OK with us because what you have seems unfair to us.” If the “haves” don’t take the attitude that this is a zero sum game, then they’re able to retain the freedom of action to attempt to better balance the situation. The beauty of the “stick up for the have nots” model is that it’s self-correcting: once the “have nots” feel more comfortable that the situation is fairer, or fair enough, they will no longer be motivated to act. Thus, a better balance is achieved. If the “have nots” overcompensate, as they did in France in 1798, then they become the new “haves” and Alinsky would switch to supporting the former “haves” in their new situation. If you look at it that way, it’s sort of  like the pie-cutting algorithm: as long as the slices look fair enough that both sides are comfortable, you don’t pick sides. As soon as the pie starts to look lopsided, you shove your fork into the back of the hand that is reaching for the bigger piece.

average-after-tax-income-by-income-groupFinally, I grew frustrated with Kant and Rawls because of their theoretical framework, which requires people to be much more thoughtful and knowledgeable than they appear to be. I like Alinsky’s approach because it achieves a dynamic balance that doesn’t depend on starting conditions, and aims toward fairness when unfairness hurts enough that you can motivate enough of the “have nots” to act. There’s the part where I get lost in today’s events: I see the “haves” as not content to have won the class war – they’re not content to have all the stuff, and all the power – they want to take what little they’ve left the “have nots”, for flimsy reasons that don’t make any sense. If it’s truly a zero-sum game, they ought to realize that there’s a certain amount of winning, beyond which is dangerous.

“Oh, hahaha! Now that we’ve exported your livelihood to increase our profit margins a few percent, and you’ve lost your savings to our manipulated markets, and your real estate to our predatory lending – and now your kids education has turned them into debt slaves: for our next act, we’re going to sucker you out of medical care!” That the “have nots” have refrained from putting them up against a wall is a testament to the effectiveness of ‘divide and conquer’ and propaganda.


“Dumb things like trolley experiments” – I’m not a fan of social sciences because I don’t see them as accomplishing much other than making lists of opinions about things. If the premise of the trolley car experiment, for example, is that we are learning something about how humans differently perceive situations based on our attitude toward whether someone is fat/thin (or whatever) then I don’t see any merit to having that information based on collected opinions. If someone says “9/10 of people respond this way” that doesn’t tell me anything more than that; I don’t see a way of inferring any kind of general underlying rule from that – it’s hardly science at all because that lack of underlying mechanism of action prevents the social sciences from having predictive power. That seems to me to be inevitable when dealing with human opinions, because our opinions appear to be a result of experience and possibly something about our nature, but they’re mutable and situational and don’t depend on some kind of natural law. So we might do a bunch of trolley experiments and determine that a “southern American male racist” will prefer to stop a trolley car by throwing a dark-skinned person onto the track instead of a white-skinned person and – so what? That’s the definition of “racist” and there’s no natural law that allows us to break the circular reasoning with some sort of measurable fact that seems to always be true

*As EveryZig pointed out in my earlier posting about Kant and the golden rule[stderr] that’s not exactly what Kant was trying to do with the Categorical Imperative. I don’t like all of the other superstructure of the Categorical Imperative, though, and personally like to approach it on that narrow axis. Your mileage may vary.

By the way, when Churchill wrote the immortal words about “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” I can’t help but want to rewrite it into my own: “From New York City in the east, to San Diego in the South, a veil of ignorance has descended across the continent.”

N-way pie cutting algorithms are also fun: assume 10 people, how do you do it? Randomly deal out chits numbered 1-10. The person who gets chit #10 cuts the pie into 10 pieces and everyone picks in order from 1. In this scenario, collusion is a problem of politics, so you’d want to have a time-limit and no signalling between players once the chits were drawn and the cutting starts.


  1. Peter B says

    Person 1 cuts. Any other person may return a piece of the cut returning it to the pie. Last person to touch the slice gets it. One may also pretend to remove a piece. When only two people are left use the one cuts the other chooses.

  2. Brian English says

    I think the trolley problems are meant to expose inconsistencies in our moral reasoning. Especially if it’s for the greater good type reasoning.
    You think it’s OK to push the fat bugger onto the tracks to save the kids because he’s a fat bugger who is probably fat because he had no self-control whilst those kiddies are too young to have made bad choices?

  3. Dunc says

    It’s important to remember that Rawls also invokes the “difference principle“:

    The Difference Principle regulates inequalities: it only permits inequalities that work to the advantage of the worst-off. This is often misinterpreted as trickle-down economics; Rawls’ argument is more accurately expressed as a system where wealth “diffuses up”.[9] By guaranteeing the worst-off in society a fair deal, Rawls compensates for naturally occurring inequalities (talents that one is born with, such as a capacity for sport).

    Or, from the wiki article on “A Theory of Justice”:

    Rawls’ claim […] is that departures from equality of a list of what he calls primary goods […] are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst-off under that distribution in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution. His position is at least in some sense egalitarian, with a provision that inequalities are allowed when they benefit the least advantaged. An important consequence of Rawls’ view is that inequalities can actually be just, as long as they are to the benefit of the least well off. His argument for this position rests heavily on the claim that morally arbitrary factors (for example, the family one is born into) shouldn’t determine one’s life chances or opportunities. Rawls is also keying on an intuition that a person does not morally deserve their inborn talents; thus that one is not entitled to all the benefits they could possibly receive from them; hence, at least one of the criteria which could provide an alternative to equality in assessing the justice of distributions is eliminated.

  4. polishsalami says

    Although it’s a while since I’ve read up on “trolleyology”, I always assumed that the reason they picked a fat guy to push off the bridge was that his heft would be enough to stop the trolley, rather than any animus toward fat people.

    game theory

    I was never taken with it, and watching The Trap by Adam Curtis sealed the deal.
    This is your brain on Ayn Rand:
    I think Rawls is rated higher than Rand among serious thinkers, which is somewhat of a comfort.

  5. Dunc says

    I think Rawls is rated higher than Rand among serious thinkers, which is somewhat of a comfort.

    Playboy is rated higher than Rand among serious thinkers everywhere outside the US.

  6. says

    I didn’t quote the “difference principle” because I think it’s a good idea but I don’t like how it’s formulated; it depends on that mythical idea of enlightened understanding of someone else’s place. The obvious problem is “who determines who is ‘worse off’?” There’s an external balancing factor that is expected to appear, sort of like an invisible hand, or something. I’m a huge fan of Rawls but I always felt this bit was kind of sketchy. Of course the veil of ignorance is also kind of sketchy, really. What would a society constructed in such a manner look like? I imagine you’d have to have communal ownership, no inheritance of wealth or power, and that’d be for starters.

    That’s why I contrast Rawls to Alinsky: the balancing factor is people’s own perception of their own discontent, weighed against their inertia.

    Playboy is rated higher than Rand among serious thinkers everywhere outside the US.

    I did learn more from the ads in Playboy than from all of Atlas Shrugged. And they’re better written and a lot shorter!

  7. says

    I was never taken with it, and watching The Trap by Adam Curtis sealed the deal.

    I’m with you on that. Adam Curtis’ “The Trap” knocked my whole world-view sideways for a good long time. It still hasn’t recovered.