Studies of ideas about fairness Notes for October 25

Main points

Professor Brown introduced the Konow article by saying that the studies it surveys all attempt to answer a question derived from Adam Smith. The question is what an impartial observer would do when faced with a question about how to distribute some goods. Hence, the surveys ask people who have no personal stake in the matter how they would divide some goods among people.

A methodological question

Mike proposed an alternative to using surveys like this: look at how people respond to real policy decisions.

It occurred to me after class that you might extend this to a more fundamental challenge. You might think that you can’t really tell what people think is fair unless they have some stake in a question. Do they resent a distributive decision or accept it? Do they accept a proposal for a division that they will share or reject it, even at a cost to themselves? Do they refuse to help enforce distributions among others or even help them to reverse particular distributive decisions? And so on.

The idea is to find out what people believe by looking at how they behave. An assumption is that this is a more reliable indicator of belief than answers to surveys about artificial situations where your answers don’t really matter.

Of course, the problem is that it’s notoriously difficult to separate your own interests from your beliefs about what is fair. That was the motivation behind the impartial spectator idea: imagine what someone who didn’t have a stake in a decision would decide to do.


I said that this way of studying fairness is at odds with what philosophers think they’re doing. Philosophers think of themselves as engaging in a process of argument and reflection that leads somewhere: either to a deeper understanding of what you already believed or to new beliefs that are different from the ones with which you started. Either way, they don’t think you can separate the conclusions from the arguments. The conclusions should strike people as odd. That’s why you have to engage in argument and reflection to reach them.

The studies Konow surveys ask people about the conclusions that Rawls and others reached without asking them to consider the arguments. I think that the survey answers are suggestive. But, at the same time, I feel some sympathy for the philosophers. They will feel that the surveys leave out everything essential in their work. From their perspective, it’s as if you asked people if they were interested in a story about a depressed Dane and, when they say “no,” concluding that Hamlet couldn’t possibly be any good.

I should hasten to add that I do not mean that the philosophers are right to feel this way or that the survey method has no value. I’m willing to believe that Konow’s way of studying fairness could be more valuable than the philosophers’ ways. I’m just saying that it’s a very different method and that it does not obviously respond to or refute a philosophical theory.

A different way of getting at the philosophers would have been to look at the premises with which Rawls, Nozick, and others begin. By “premises,” I mean the assumptions that they do not argue for but rather take for granted in formulating their arguments. If those are shown to be quite peculiar, then that is pretty good evidence that the subsequent argument has little relevance to most people’s opinions.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted October 25, 2010.
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