The Bedrock of Fairness

Fol­lowup to: The Mo­ral Void

Three peo­ple, whom we’ll call Xan­non, Yancy and Zaire, are sep­a­rately wan­der­ing through the for­est; by chance, they hap­pen upon a clear­ing, meet­ing each other. In­tro­duc­tions are performed. And then they dis­cover, in the cen­ter of the clear­ing, a deli­cious blue­berry pie.

Xan­non: “A pie! What good for­tune! But which of us should get it?”

Yancy: “Let us di­vide it fairly.”

Zaire: “I agree; let the pie be dis­tributed fairly. Who could ar­gue against fair­ness?”

Xan­non: “So we are agreed, then. But what is a fair di­vi­sion?”

Yancy: “Eh? Three equal parts, of course!”

Zaire: “Non­sense! A fair dis­tri­bu­tion is half for me, and a quar­ter apiece for the two of you.”

Yancy: “What? How is that fair?”

Zaire: “I’m hun­gry, there­fore I should be fed; that is fair.”

Xan­non: “Oh, dear. It seems we have a dis­pute as to what is fair. For my­self, I want to di­vide the pie the same way as Yancy. But let us re­solve this dis­pute over the mean­ing of fair­ness, fairly: that is, giv­ing equal weight to each of our de­sires. Zaire de­sires the pie to be di­vided {1/​4, 14, 12}, and Yancy and I de­sire the pie to be di­vided {1/​3, 13, 13}. So the fair com­pro­mise is {11/​36, 1136, 1436}.”

Zaire: “What? That’s crazy. There’s two differ­ent opinions as to how fair­ness works—why should the opinion that hap­pens to be yours, get twice as much weight as the opinion that hap­pens to be mine? Do you think your the­ory is twice as good? I think my the­ory is a hun­dred times as good as yours! So there!”

Yancy: “Craz­i­ness in­deed. Xan­non, I already took Zaire’s de­sires into ac­count in say­ing that he should get 13 of the pie. You can’t count the same fac­tor twice. Even if we count fair­ness as an in­her­ent de­sire, why should Zaire be re­warded for be­ing self­ish? Think about which agents thrive un­der your sys­tem!”

Xan­non: “Alas! I was hop­ing that, even if we could not agree on how to dis­tribute the pie, we could agree on a fair re­s­olu­tion pro­ce­dure for our dis­pute, such as av­er­ag­ing our de­sires to­gether. But even that hope was dashed. Now what are we to do?”

Yancy: “Xan­non, you are over­com­pli­cat­ing things. 13 apiece. It’s not that com­pli­cated. A fair dis­tri­bu­tion is an even split, not a dis­tri­bu­tion ar­rived at by a ‘fair re­s­olu­tion pro­ce­dure’ that ev­ery­one agrees on. What if we’d all been raised in a so­ciety that be­lieved that men should get twice as much pie as women? Then we would split the pie un­evenly, and even though no one of us dis­puted the split, it would still be un­fair.”

Xan­non: “What? Where is this ‘fair­ness’ stored if not in hu­man minds? Who says that some­thing is un­fair if no in­tel­li­gent agent does so? Not upon the stars or the moun­tains is ‘fair­ness’ writ­ten.”

Yancy: “So what you’re say­ing is that if you’ve got a whole so­ciety where women are chat­tel and men sell them like farm an­i­mals and it hasn’t oc­curred to any­one that things could be other than they are, that this so­ciety is fair, and at the ex­act mo­ment where some­one first re­al­izes it shouldn’t have to be that way, the whole so­ciety sud­denly be­comes un­fair.”

Xan­non: “How can a so­ciety be un­fair with­out some spe­cific party who claims in­jury and re­ceives no repa­ra­tion? If it hasn’t oc­curred to any­one that things could work differ­ently, and no one’s asked for things to work differ­ently, then—”

Yancy: “Then the women are still be­ing treated like farm an­i­mals and that is un­fair. Where’s your com­mon sense? Fair­ness is not agree­ment, fair­ness is sym­me­try.”

Zaire: “Is this all work­ing out to my get­ting half the pie?”

Yancy: “No.”

Xan­non: “I don’t know… maybe as the limit of an in­finite se­quence of meta-meta-fair­nesses...”

Zaire: “I fear I must ac­cord with Yancy on one point, Xan­non; your de­sire for perfect ac­cord among us is mis­guided. I want half the pie. Yancy wants me to have a third of the pie. This is all there is to the world, and all there ever was. If two mon­keys want the same ba­nana, in the end one will have it, and the other will cry moral­ity. Who gets to form the com­mit­tee to de­cide the rules that will be used to de­ter­mine what is ‘fair’? Who­ever it is, got the ba­nana.”

Yancy: “I wanted to give you a third of the pie, and you equate this to seiz­ing the whole thing for my­self? Small won­der that you don’t want to ac­knowl­edge the ex­is­tence of moral­ity—you don’t want to ac­knowl­edge that any­one can be so much less of a jerk.”

Xan­non: “You over­sim­plify the world, Zaire. Banana-fights oc­cur across thou­sands and per­haps mil­lions of species, in the an­i­mal king­dom. But if this were all there was, Homo sapi­ens would never have evolved moral in­tu­itions. Why would the hu­man an­i­mal evolve to cry moral­ity, if the cry had no effect?”

Zaire: “To make them­selves feel bet­ter.”

Yancy: “Ha! You fail at evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy.”

Xan­non: “A mur­derer ac­costs a vic­tim, in a dark alley; the mur­derer de­sires the vic­tim to die, and the vic­tim de­sires to live. Is there noth­ing more to the uni­verse than their con­flict? No, be­cause if I hap­pen along, I will side with the vic­tim, and not with the mur­derer. The vic­tim’s plea crosses the gap of per­sons, to me; it is not locked up in­side the vic­tim’s own mind. But the mur­derer can­not ob­tain my sym­pa­thy, nor in­cite me to help mur­der. Mo­ral­ity crosses the gap be­tween per­sons; you might not see it in a con­flict be­tween two peo­ple, but you would see it in a so­ciety.”

Yancy: “So you define moral­ity as that which crosses the gap of per­sons?”

Xan­non: “It seems to me that so­cial ar­gu­ments over dis­puted goals are how hu­man moral in­tu­itions arose, be­yond the sim­ple clash over ba­nanas. So that is how I define the term.”

Yancy: “Then I dis­agree. If some­one wants to mur­der me, and the two of us are alone, then I am still in the right and they are still in the wrong, even if no one else is pre­sent.”

Zaire: “And the mur­derer says, ‘I am in the right, you are in the wrong’. So what?”

Xan­non: “How does your state­ment that you are in the right, and the mur­derer is in the wrong, im­p­inge upon the uni­verse—if there is no one else pre­sent to be per­suaded?”

Yancy: “It li­censes me to re­sist be­ing mur­dered; which I might not do, if I thought that my de­sire to avoid be­ing mur­dered was wrong, and the mur­derer’s de­sire to kill me was right. I can dis­t­in­guish be­tween things I merely want, and things that are right—though alas, I do not always live up to my own stan­dards. The mur­derer is blind to the moral­ity, per­haps, but that doesn’t change the moral­ity. And if we were both blind, the moral­ity still would not change.”

Xan­non: “Blind? What is be­ing seen, what sees it?”

Yancy: “You’re try­ing to treat fair­ness as… I don’t know, some­thing like an ar­ray-mapped 2-place func­tion that goes out and eats a list of hu­man minds, and re­turns a list of what each per­son thinks is ‘fair’, and then av­er­ages it to­gether. The prob­lem with this isn’t just that differ­ent peo­ple could have differ­ent ideas about fair­ness. It’s not just that they could have differ­ent ideas about how to com­bine the re­sults. It’s that it leads to in­finite re­cur­sion out­right—pass­ing the re­cur­sive buck. You want there to be some level on which ev­ery­one agrees, but at least some pos­si­ble minds will dis­agree with any state­ment you make.”

Xan­non: “Isn’t the whole point of fair­ness to let peo­ple agree on a di­vi­sion, in­stead of fight­ing over it?”

Yancy: “What is fair is one ques­tion, and whether some­one else ac­cepts that this is fair is an­other ques­tion. What is fair? That’s easy: an equal di­vi­sion of the pie is fair. Any­thing else won’t be fair no mat­ter what kind of pretty ar­gu­ments you put around it. Even if I gave Zaire a sixth of my pie, that might be a vol­un­tary di­vi­sion but it wouldn’t be a fair di­vi­sion. Let fair­ness be a sim­ple and ob­ject-level pro­ce­dure, in­stead of this in­finite meta-re­cur­sion, and the buck will stop im­me­di­ately.”

Zaire: “If the word ‘fair’ sim­ply means ‘equal di­vi­sion’ then why not just say ‘equal di­vi­sion’ in­stead of this strange ad­di­tional word, ‘fair’? You want the pie di­vided equally, I want half the pie for my­self. That’s the whole fact of the mat­ter; this word ‘fair’ is merely an at­tempt to get more of the pie for your­self.”

Xan­non: “If that’s the whole fact of the mat­ter, why would any­one talk about ‘fair­ness’ in the first place, I won­der?”

Zaire: “Be­cause they all share the same delu­sion.”

Yancy: “A delu­sion of what? What is it that you are say­ing peo­ple think in­cor­rectly the uni­verse is like?”

Zaire: “I am un­der no obli­ga­tion to de­scribe other peo­ple’s con­fu­sions.”

Yancy: “If you can’t dis­solve their con­fu­sion, how can you be sure they’re con­fused? But it seems clear enough to me that if the word fair is go­ing to have any mean­ing at all, it has to fi­nally add up to each of us get­ting one-third of the pie.”

Xan­non: “How odd it is to have a pro­ce­dure of which we are more sure of the re­sult than the pro­ce­dure it­self.”

Zaire: “Speak for your­self.”

Part of The Me­taethics Sequence

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