Fairness reasoning in the abstract and the concrete

Michael Giberson

Will Wilkinson points to a post by Joshua Knobe discussing a philosophy experiment conducted by U. of Arizona philosophers Chris Freiman and Shaun Nichols. Here is how Knobe describes the experiment:

Subjects were randomly assigned either to receive [an] ‘abstract’ question or a ‘concrete.’

Subjects who had been assigned to receive an abstract question were asked:

Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages.

Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:

– It is fair that those genetically-advantaged people make more money than others.

Meanwhile, subjects who had been assigned to receive a concrete question were asked:

Suppose that Amy and Beth both want to be professional jazz singers. They both practice singing equally hard. Although jazz singing is the greatest natural talent of both Amy and Beth, Beth’s vocal range and articulation is naturally better than Amy’s because of differences in their genetics. Solely as a result of this genetic advantage, Beth’s singing is much more impressive. As a result, Beth attracts bigger audiences and hence gets more money than Amy.

Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:

– It is fair that Beth makes more money than Amy.

Freiman and Nichols found that, as Knobe put it, “subjects who were given the abstract question said that it was not fair, but subjects who were given the concrete question said that it actually was fair!”

Knobe suggests that it is a surprising result, and I guess it is surprising on some level. Logically, the cases are the same but for the additional details in the concrete example. The fact that we are talking about jazz singers, and not dockworkers or accountants, should not affect the fairness or lack of fairness of the case. Therefore, adding morally neutral information shouldn’t change conclusions about fairness, but apparently does.

Knobe also tries to put a left-right political interpretation on the result, but doesn’t actually report whether Frieman and Nichols collected any data relevant to a political angle. I can’t find the paper online, so can’t say what if anything the authors have to say about the politics. Wilkinson also joins in the political speculation, but again without any indication that there is data to support a political discussion.

My sense of the difference between the abstract and concrete cases is that the concept of fairness requires a consideration of the balance between, as it were, the inputs and outputs at issue. In the abstract case, the input is a random, unearned genetic advantage and the output is obtaining more money. Clearly, in my view, the concept of fairness cannot support a balancing between these unequal elements – a random input cannot merit a specific positive reward.

While the concrete case is formally identical in terms of structure, the details offered allow for a different mental processing of the fairness concept. In the concrete case, the subject is able to compare the more impressive performances against the the more money obtained and reach the conclusion that the better performances merit a better reward. It no longer matters, to the mind trying to answer the fairness question, that the better performances were themselves the result of a random genetic endowment. What matters is that a good performance can merit a good reward.

However, I’d wager that fairness conclusions for the concrete case would fall way off if Frieman and Nichols followed their concrete example with the same question posed to the subjects facing the abstract case, namely, asking them, “It is fair that those genetically-advantaged people make more money than others.” The question posed this way cues up the random genetic input in the subject’s mental processing again, and a random genetic input can not merit a positive reward.


3 thoughts on “Fairness reasoning in the abstract and the concrete

  1. I’d like to see the abstract question followed up with, “Would it be okay for the genetically disadvantaged person to take drugs to correct the difference?” As we’ve seen in Major League Baseball, a lot of people think the answer is no.

  2. solely because they have genetic advantages” means they are a member of the lucky sperm club (brother in-law of the CEO, member of the tribe, right skin color, etc) not that the work they do is worth more. It’s not abstract vs. concrete if I’m answering the question, it’s the brother in-law effect vs. work that is worth more.

  3. What if the question had specified two women who aspired to be pop singers or country singers, where strict vocal talent gives way to good looks?

    Obviously the ones conducting the study were steering subject’s thought processes to focus on one issue, but if we look more broadly, we will see that genetic factors play a much larger role in distributing “success” than we may like to admit.

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