Is Fairness Arbitrary?

Followup to: The Bedrock of Fairness

In “The Bedrock of Fairness”, Xannon, Yancy, and Zaire argue over how to split up a pie that they found in the woods. Yancy thinks that 13 each is fair; Zaire demands half; and Xannon tries to compromise.

Dividing a pie fairly isn’t as trivial a problem as it may sound. What if people have different preferences for crust, filling, and topping? Should they each start with a third, and trade voluntarily? But then they have conflicts of interest over how to divide the surplus utility generated by trading...

But I would say that “half for Zaire” surely isn’t fair.

I confess that I originally wrote Zaire as a foil—this is clearer in an earlier version of the dialog, where Zaire, named Dennis, demands the whole pie—and was surprised to find some of my readers taking Zaire’s claim seriously, perhaps because I had Zaire say “I’m hungry.”

Well, okay; I believe that when I write a dialogue, the reader has a right to their own interpretation. But I did intend that dialogue to illustrate a particular point:

You can argue about how to divide up the pie, or even argue how to argue about dividing up the pie, you can argue over what is fair… but there finally comes a point when you hit bedrock. If Dennis says, “No, the fair way to argue is that I get to dictate everything, and I now hereby dictate that I get the whole pie,” there’s nothing left to say but “Sorry, that’s just not what fairness is—you can try to take the pie and I can try to stop you, but you can’t convince that that is fair.”

A “fair division” is not the same as “a division that compels everyone to admit that the division is fair”. Dennis can always just refuse to agree, after all.

But more to the point, when you encounter a pie in the forest, in the company of friends, and you try to be fair, there’s a certain particular thing you’re trying to do—the term “fair” is not perfectly empty, it cannot attach to just anything. Metaphorically speaking, “fair” is not a hypothesis equally compatible with any outcome.

Fairness expresses notions of concern for the other agents who also want the pie; a goal to take their goals into account. It’s a separate question whether that concern is pure altruism, or not wanting to make them angry enough to fight. Fairness expresses notions of symmetry, equal treatment—which might be a terminal value unto you, or just an attempt to find a convenient meeting-point to avoid an outright battle.

Is it fair to take into account what other people think is “fair”, and not just what you think is “fair”?

The obvious reason to care what other people think is “fair”, is if they’re being moved by similar considerations, yet arriving at different conclusions. If you think that the Other’s word “fair” means what you think of as fair, and you think the Other is being honest about what they think, then you ought to pay attention just by way of fulfilling your own desire to be fair. It is like paying attention to an honest person who means the same thing you do by “multiplication”, who says that 19 * 103 might not be 1947. The attention you pay to that suggestion, is not a favor to the other person; it is something you do if you want to get the multiplication right—they’re doing you a favor by correcting you.

Politics is more subject to bias than multiplication. And you might think that the Other’s reasoning is corrupted by self-interest, while yours is as pure as Antarctic snow. But to the extent that you credit the Other’s self-honesty, or doubt your own, you would do well to hear what the Other has to say—if you wish to be fair.

The second notion of why we might pay attention to what someone else thinks is “fair”, is more complicated: it is the notion of applying fairness to its own quotation, that is, fairly debating what is “fair”. In complicated politics you may have to negotiate a negotiating procedure. Surely it wouldn’t be fair if Dennis just got to say, “The fair resolution procedure is that I get to decide what’s fair.” So why should you get to just decide what’s fair, then?

Here the attention you pay to the other person’s beliefs about “fairness”, is a favor that you do to them, a concession that you expect to be met with a return concession.

But when you set out to fairly discuss what is “fair” (note the strange loop through the meta-level), that doesn’t put everything up for grabs. A zeroth-order fair division of a pie doesn’t involve giving away the whole pie to Dennis—just giving identical portions to all. Even though Dennis wants the whole thing, and asks for the whole thing, the zeroth-order fair division only gives Dennis a symmetrical portion to everyone else’s. Similarly, a first-order fair attempt to resolve a dispute about what is “fair”, doesn’t involve conceding everything to the Other’s viewpoint without reciprocation. That wouldn’t be fair. Why give everything away to the Other, if you receive nothing in return? Why give Dennis the whole first-order pie?

On some level, then, there has to be a possible demand which would be too great—a demand exceeding what may be fairly requested of you. This is part of the content of fairness; it is part of what you are setting out to do, when you set out to be fair. Admittedly, one should not be too trigger-happy about saying “That’s too much!” We human beings tend to overestimate the concessions we have made, and underestimate the concessions that others have made to us; we tend to underadjust for the Other’s point of view… even so, if nothing is “too much”, then you’re not engaging in fairness.

Fairness might call on you to hear out what the Other has to say; fairness may call on you to exert an effort to really truly consider the Other’s point of view—but there is a limit to this, as there is a limit to all fair concessions. If all Dennis can say is “I want the whole pie!” over and over, there’s a limit to how long fairness requires you to ponder this argument.

You reach the bedrock of fairness at the point where, no matter who questions whether the division is fair, no matter who refuses to be persuaded, no matter who offers further objections, and regardless of your awareness that you yourself may be biased… Dennis still isn’t getting the whole pie. If there are others present who are also trying to be fair, and Dennis is not already dictator, they will probably back you rather than Dennis—this is one sign that you can trust the line you’ve drawn, that it really is time to say “Enough!”

If you and the others present get together and give Dennis 1/​Nth of the pie—or even if you happen to have the upper hand, and you unilaterally give Dennis and yourself and all others each 1/​Nth—then you are not being unfair on any level; there is no meta-level of fairness where Dennis gets the whole pie.

Now I’m sure there are some in the audience who will say, “You and perhaps some others, are merely doing things your way, rather than Dennis’s.” On the contrary: We are merely being fair. It so happens that this fairness is our way, as all acts must be someone’s way to happen in the real universe. But what we are merely doing, happens to be, being fair. And there is no level on which it is unfair, because there is no level on which fairness requires unlimited unreciprocated surrender.

I don’t believe in unchangeable bedrock—I believe in self-modifying bedrock. But I do believe in bedrock, in the sense that everything has to start somewhere. It can be turtles all the way up, but not turtles all the way down.

You cannot define fairness entirely in terms of “That which everyone agrees is ‘fair’.” This isn’t just nonterminating. It isn’t just ill-defined if Dennis doesn’t believe that ‘fair’ is “that which everyone agrees is ‘fair’”. It’s actually entirely empty, like the English sentence “This sentence is true.” Is that sentence true? Is it false? It is neither; it doesn’t mean anything because it is entirely wrapped up in itself, with no tentacle of relation to reality. If you’re going to argue what is fair, there has to be something you’re arguing about, some structure that is baked into the question.

Which is to say that you can’t turn “fairness” into an ideal label of pure emptiness, defined only by the mysterious compulsion of every possible agent to admit “This is what is ‘fair’.” Forget the case against universally compelling arguments—just consider the definition itself: It has absolutely no content, no external references; it is not just underspecified, but entirely unspecified.

But as soon as you introduce any content into the label “fairness” that isn’t phrased purely in terms of all possible minds applying the label, then you have a foundation on which to stand. It may be self-modifying bedrock, rather than immovable bedrock. But it is still a place to start. A place from which to say: “Regardless of what Dennis says, giving him the whole pie isn’t fair, because fairness is not defined entirely and only in terms of Dennis’s agreement.”

And you aren’t being “arbitrary”, either—though the intuitive meaning of that word has never seemed entirely well-specified to me; is a tree arbitrary, or a leaf? But it sounds like the accusation is of pulling some answer out of thin air—which you’re not doing; you’re giving the fair answer, not an answer pulled out of thin air. What about when you jump up a meta-level, and look at Dennis’s wanting to do it one way, and your wanting a different resolution? Then it’s still not arbitrary, because you aren’t being unfair on that meta-level, either. The answer you pull out is not merely an arbitrary answer you invented, but a fair answer. You aren’t merely doing it your way; the way that you are doing it, is the fair way.

You can ask “But why should you be fair?”—and that’s a separate question, which we’ll go into tomorrow. But giving Dennis 1/​Nth, we can at least say, is not merely and only arbitrary from the perspective of fair-vs.-unfair. Even if Dennis keeps saying “It isn’t fair!” and even if Dennis also disputes the 1st-order, 2nd-order, Nth-order meta-fairnesses. Giving N people each 1/​Nth is nonetheless a fair sort of thing to do, and whether or not we should be fair is then a separate question.

Part of The Metaethics Sequence

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