The fairness of baskets

Whenever I think of fairness, I am reminded of an old fable I grew up with. In this story, the inhabitants in a small village is complaining of how hard their lives are and how unfortunate they are. Seeing their misery, the leader of this village tells everyone, “Write all your problems on little slips of paper; be sure to leave nothing out. When you are done, put your slips into a basket and hang your up in the tall tree that grows in the town square.” No one was sure how this would help, but they trusted their leader, so each stayed up late into the night writing every problem and complaint they could think of on scraps of paper and hanging them high in the tree. The next morning, the leader tells his village, “Go, look through all the baskets. Find whichever basket you like—whichever has the fewest problems. Come back to me, and I will use my magic to replace your problems with the ones in the basket you choose.” At first, everyone rushed to the tree, scrambling to find the lightest baskets. But no one returned right away; instead, every person looked through each basket, trying hard to find one lighter than his own. After many minutes of searching, all the villagers came back, one by one, with his or her own basket of problems. As it turned out, each person was just as troubled as her neighbors; at least they had some idea of how to deal with their own problems. And thus the villagers learned an important lesson in being grateful for what they had instead of envying the lives of others.[FN: In the true spirit of folklore, the origins of this story have proven difficult to track down. However, the story itself is quite widespread.]

Whenever I hear this story, the alleged moral of this story—that we ought all to be grateful for our blessings and think carefully before envying others—seems a bit premature.

Instead, I am struck by how remarkably fair this village is: each person, after careful consideration, really did choose his or her own basket. Imagine the results if a similar exercise were attempted in our own society: Some baskets would be weighed down with problems like “I may not be able to afford both medicine for my wife and enough food for my children,” “No matter how much money I earn, I still feel like a failure,” or “My daughter is addicted to heroin and I don’t know how to help her.”

Other baskets would have light worries: “If I do not get a promotion, I may not be able to afford a new car this year,” “I worry that I will have to settle for my third-choice medical school,” or “My girlfriend might break up with me on our first anniversary.” I doubt any baskets would be empty, but at the same time I have no doubt that some baskets would be snatched up very quickly while others would be avoided at all costs.

The village in this fable comes very close to perfect fairness under my conception of fairness. I would add only one additional point: each basket should also contain the positive elements of theperson’s life and personality, not just the problems and issues. Each basket would then be a complete record of a life, of all that is good and bad about that life. Anyone who is willing to trade baskets would therefore willing to trade lives. Trading baskets would then be trading lives in a very real sense. To take on someone else’s problems, her personality and all else that she put into her basket would, in a real sense, be to become that person.

With this extended version of the basket, one person would accept another’s basket if and only if the second person was happier than the first. This may not be immediately apparent; some might argue “I will take her basket because, even though she is no happier than I am, she is unhappy only because of some quirk of her personality. If I had her life, I would be much happier.” We can see, however, that this view is mistaken. If the speaker truly had the other person’s life, he would also have had her genetic code and her upbringing. In short, he would have her personality and, whatever quirk that caused her to be unhappy despite her “objective” wellbeing would also apply to him. He should, therefore, want her life only if, all things considered, she truly is happier than he is.

I like using this “basket test” to think about fairness, both in my life and the world.

Although the basket test provides a clear view on what fairness is, we should also be clear on what it is not. Specifically, we must be careful to distinguish fairness from two related concepts: equality and procedural fairness. Equality is, itself, a difficult concept and I offer no solid definition of equality here. However, I maintain that a fair distribution need not be an equal one, in any meaningful sense. If I am just as happy with my life as another person, then I view the world as having treated us fairly even if we have different income, different number of friends, different health, etc. Indeed, we may fail to be equal under every metric and still have been treated fairly.

Similarly, fairness is no guarantee of procedural fairness. By “procedural fairness”, I mean the fairness of using an unbiased procedure for distribution. For example, giving candy to whichever of two children won a coin toss would be procedurally fair but (assuming both are equal beforehand) giving candy to only one of the kids would be an unfair outcome under the basket test. Similarly, deciding that the first child would get half the candy if he won the toss while the second would get all if he won would be procedurally unfair. But if the first child won and the result was a fair distribution—that is, a distribution that left both kids equally happy—then the outcome is fair under the basket test in spite of the procedural unfairness.

The basket test for fairness matches well with commonplace intuitions about fairness. Consider Elaine and Charlie, two college classmates each of whom works equally hard, is equally intelligent and graduates with similar academic records. Imagine that Elaine secures a job earning much more than the job Charlie obtains and Charlie argues that life is unfair between the two of them. How might Elaine respond? If Charlie works for a non-profit and finds his work challenging and fulfilling while she works for a company and finds her work dull and unimportant, she might argue that this negates any unfairness between them. Indeed, if they are equally happy, Charlie has no valid grounds for complaint; if his job makes him happier than Elaine’s does, despite the difference in pay, then life may even be unfair in Charlie’s favor.

Even if they both work in similar jobs, but Charlie remains as happy despite his lower pay (perhaps because his employer is located such that he does not need to battle as much traffic on his commute), again there seems to be no valid ground for complaint. So far, our intuitions about fairness coincide with the basket conception and with the notion that happiness equality is important evidence of fairness.

What if the two work for the same company, performing equally well under the same conditions but receiving different pay? At first, receiving different pay for the same work in the same conditions may seem obviously unfair. Even if some quirk of Charlie’s personality leads him to be just as happy as Elaine, intuition suggests that he has clearly been treated unfairly.

However, this intuition is only clear in the passive voice; Charlie has been treated unfairly, but by whom? The company, which is paying one employee more for the same quality work and the same effort, is acting unfairly. But life as a whole, at least by my lights, has not treated Charlie any worse than Elaine. True, he had the poor fortune to be paid less than her through no fault of his own.

But he also had the good fortune to be born with the genes and raised in an environment that left him equipped with a personality that finds just as much happiness in his lower pay as Elaine finds in her higher pay. And, of course, Charlie can hardly claim to have deserved the genes or environment he was lucky enough to enjoy. From the perspective of life-long, total luck, Charlie and Elaine seem equally lucky. Both, through different paths, ended up just as happy, and neither would trade overall baskets with one another.

Elaine may have grounds to complain that her upbringing unfairly disadvantaged her against Charlie, and Charlie may be right to complain that the company is not treating him fairly. But neither, by my intuition, has ground to complain that life, as a whole, has treated them unfairly—at least not with respect to one another. This intuition thus matches the idea that no unfairness exists where the two individuals are equally happy; that is, even in this case, intuition and the basket test align.

This illuminates an important point: lifetime fairness can result from a sum of unfair events. Elaine might rightly be able to complain of the unfairness of several facts: that Charlie grew up with parents who taught him to take happiness from the relationships he forges instead of measuring his success by the money he earns, that he was lucky enough to find a good deal on his apartment, that he has a strong circle of friends and that his family money meant that he has no outstanding student loans.

In each of these areas, Charlie was luckier than Elaine; if she could trade the “how our parents raised us to think about success” slip of paper within his life-basket or the “strength of our friendships” slip of paper, she surely would. Thus, each of these areas represents genuine unfairness between Charlie and Elaine in that specific area.

However, Charlie may also be able to point to areas where he would like to trade slips of paper with Elaine. As already noted, Elaine is paid more than Charlie; perhaps she has also found a more satisfying romantic partner and has a better relationship with her siblings. If Charlie could trade the “pay” or the “romantic partner” papers with Elaine, he would; these areas are unfair in Elaine’s favor.

Yet the fact that so many areas of their lives are unfair does not imply that their lives as a whole are unfair. Charlie might acknowledge that there are several slips of paper he would like to trade with Elaine, but also realize there are many he would be refuse trade. If, on the whole, he realizes that he would be no happier with the total basket of her life, then he would not want to trade baskets. He may recognize that there are many ways in which his life is unfairly worse than hers is while also recognizing that there are other ways in which his life is unfairly better. In a sense, these unfairnesses may “cancel out” and result in their two lives being, in aggregate, fair. (The unfairnesses might not cancel out, of course; looking at everything in the life basket, Charlie might prefer Elaine’s basket. The mere fact that some aspects of life are unfair in his favor does not prove that Elaine is not better off than Charlie. The point, however, is that Charlie will want to switch baskets if and only if Elaine is happier than him; unfairness in some areas of life is no guarantee of lower total happiness.)

But maybe my intuitions aren’t as common as I think. How about it: Does the basket test match your intuitions about total lifetime fairness?

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