bad decisions and fairness

I have often discussed in class an example from Lani Guinier’s 1994 book, The Tyranny of the Majority, that deals with notions of fairness and rules of the game. Consider a road race in which the first-place finisher wins $10,000, and all other participants are banned from future competition. Consider, by comparison, a road race in which the first-place finisher wins $1,000, the second-place finisher $999, the third-place $998, and so on down the line.

Both of these cases are procedurally fair: the rules are set out ahead of time, and the results of differential achievement are well understood. Indeed, there’s an additional measure of fairness in that both reward greater success more than lesser success. So how should we decide, as a matter of normative theory, between these options? Guinier’s suggestion is that the latter option is preferable because, in addition to fairness, it rewards success across a greater breadth instead of drawing a firm line between success and failure. I tend to agree.

In The Nation there’s a great column by the always-wonderful Katha Pollitt. Pollitt takes on the NYT’s comparison of two women and the ways their economic fortunes have diverged through the process of different decisions and the differential rewards and costs they impose. Pollitt’s piece is a great example of the ways procedural fairness alone doesn’t guarantee optimal outcomes. It’s procedurally fair that Jessica (the poor woman in the piece) endures a much lower income and quality of life than does Chris, because the rules that establish the consequences to various decisions are reasonably well known. But it doesn’t follow that the costs of “screw[ing] up in your early 20s” should be as dire as they turn out to be.

I recommend Pollitt’s piece. I will likely use it in class.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

3 thoughts on “bad decisions and fairness”

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