Sunday, September 04, 2005

Demands of Fairness

Last Friday, Michael Ridge presented a paper at a workshop here in St Andrews on Moral Demandingness.

Ridge discussed obligations entered into collectively by groups of agents - in particular, what happens when one member of the group fails to meet her share of the obligation. He argued that considerations of fairness impose a duty on the remaining parties to divide the extra burden created by this neglect as fairly as possible between them. For instance, suppose I and two friends collectively promise to pay you £9 in return for some service, planning to pay £3 each. Then one of my friends refuses to pay anything. According to Ridge, fairness imposes a duty on you, myself and the remaining friend each to sacrifice the same amount as a result of this refusal. So I and the remaining friend should pay you £4 each, so that you get £8. That way, the cost to each of us of the friend's refusal is £1: you miss out on £1 of your payment and my friend and I pay £1 more than we were supposed to.

There is something appealing about this. But on the other hand there's something appealing about the thought that all that fairness requires of me is that I pay my agreed share of £3. It doesn't seem to be required by fairness (though it may be virtuous and supererogatory) that I pay more than my share (we want to say: more than my fair share) just because someone else has neglected her part in the collective obligation.

So it looks like there's a sense in which fairness requires nothing more of me than that I pay £3, and a sense in which fairness requires that I pay £4. It would be nice to hear more about what these two senses are, in order to lessen the feeling of contradiction. (For what it's worth, my instinct is that the feeling is not genuine.)


Daniel Elstein said...

Hi Carrie, that's an interesting problem that Ridge raises. Perhaps the different intuitions come not from different senses of fairness but from different ways of taking collective obligations. There's room for a few different interpretations of 'obligations entered into collectively by groups of agents'. On a very weak reading, all that happens is that several agents coordinate their promises to an individual P in such a way that P promises in return to do something for all of them. So (at a meeting of the four parties) you say 'I promise to pay you £3 if you perform the service', and your two friends say the same. I'd agree with you that in this case you don't have to pay more than your original share of £3. The reason is that in such a case all you've done is made a promise on your own behalf, without committing yourself to making good any collective debt.

But a rather stronger reading of 'obligations entered into collectively by groups of agents' gives you a case where some kind of collective entity makes the promise. All I mean by this is that one of the three of you says 'We promise to pay you £9' and the others assent. In that case I would say that the agents who don't renege on the debt are obliged to fully make good the debt to the promisee (i.e. to pay £4.50 each). It is then their own concern to recover from the reneging party the £3 he owes - they shouldn't have made the promise collectively if they weren't prepared to do this.

Whilst I think that the two cases I describe are clear cut (and I wonder which one, if either, you had in mind), I see that there are possibilities for ambiguity which might make Ridge's proposal appealing. What if, at the meeting, you say
(*) 'We promise to pay you £3 each'.
That looks to me ambiguous between
(1) 'We each promise to pay you £3'
(2) 'We promise to pay you £3 for each of us'.
But (1) looks like my first case: what is represented is that each agent makes a separate promise. (2) looks like the second case: a genuinely collective promise is made. So when something like (*) is involved, it isn't clear whether you owe £3 or £4.50. In such a case you could plausibly argue as follows. The people who entered into the agreement have all made the mistake of failing to clarify what was being promised (or who was doing the promising), and so they should split the costs imposed by the reneger in some way. Ridge's solution, that each takes a hit of £1, and you pay £4, is one option. Another possibility is that you should split the difference between what you owe in the two cases: i.e. you should pay £3.75. I'm not sure how to resolve this final issue, but what's 25p between friends?

Carrie Jenkins said...

Perhaps there are separate questions about what *fairness* demands and what I am obliged to do *in virtue of having promised*. Couldn't be that in virtue of making a genuinely collective promise I am obliged to pay £4.50, but that it would be fairer if I and the non-reneging friend each paid £4 as Ridge suggests?

Anyway, suppose we *had* simply promised individually. Still, it seems to me there is some sense in which fairness demands that the non-renegers and the service-provider split as fairly as possible the burden created by the reneger.

Daniel Elstein said...

I'm not sure about your first point. A way of glossing it that I have some sympathy with is that you are obliged to pay £4.50, but that there is a (supererogatory) demand on the service-provider to release you from 50p worth of that obligation. The problem is that when the promise was made the promisers should have been aware that they were taking responsibility for one of them reneging. If the service-provider ought to meet them halfway, I suppose that could be because he should recognise that they are treating him differently in making good the debt, and he should reciprocate. But that all seems pretty vague.

In the case where we do promise individually, it seems to me that the story needs to be a little richer before it's intuitive that the non-renegers have to share the burden. Here are some factors which would make me more inclined to say that fairness demands sharing the burden:

A. The service-provider was talked into making the deal (and not by the reneger), rather than the deal being of a kind which the service-provider is accustomed to offer to interested groups.
B. Such acts of reneging are unusual for the service-provider, and not ones which are taken into account in his business planning.
C. The service-provider is severely disadvantaged by the reneger, e.g. risking bankruptcy rather than a small reduction in profits.
D. The service-provider would have difficulty in recovering the reneger's debt through the courts.
E. The friends have ties to the reneger that make them (feel?) responsible for what the reneger does.

A couple of further comments. I'm not sure that the demands here are demands *of fairness*, rather than of some kind of reciprocal charity. Where the service-provider is in trouble as a result of doing something for you, you feel that it would be good to help him out, but it's probably supererogatory to do so. Also, some of these points turn on the original arrangement implicating more of a collective action than was actually taken. So some of my temptation to agree with you about fairness demands stems from the thought that actual promises are rarely precise enough to make sure that everyone knows where they stand.

Carrie Jenkins said...

Ah - that looks like a more convincing spelling of 'supererogatory' than mine!

Re: the collective promise cases, don't you think it's possible that a collective obligation is undertaken without each party thereby taking on responsibility for the possible reneging of the others? Suppose (this is one of Ridge's examples) a group of us go for dinner and then one refuses to pay towards the tip (suppose also that tipping is standard, expected and necessary in order for the waiting staff to earn enough to live on). You might think the table has some collective obligation to pay a proper tip, although it's not the case that each diner takes full responsibility for paying the tips of any other diners who refuse to pay.

Similarly you might think a group (a company, say) could take collective responsibility for an action without each member of the group thereby taking full responsibility for it.

Daniel Elstein said...

Ok, the dinner example isn't one I'd thought of. Why does it have to be the tip? What if someone in the group just refuses to pay for her meal (except that this is far less likely to happen)? Maybe the thought is that in that case you could just tell the restaurant staff the situation, pay for your own food, and leave your non-paying friend to sort it out with the restaurant (but I'm not convinced that the restaurant would let you do that).

I think there's at least an argument that you are only responsible for paying for your own food (and your dependents'). Most people have the attitude that what they each owe as a tip is 10% (or whatever the standard amount) on top of that, so the amount that each person owes as a tip is as well-defined as what each owes for her food. There doesn't seem to be a good reason in justice why you should have to pay the bill or the tip if your friends won't pay. (Indeed you could argue that the tip is optional and it's up to each individual to withhold the tip if dissatisfied with the service, and so it would only be if your friend's refusal to tip was unreasonable that you'd have even a temptation to think that you're required to make the tip good). There are of course good practical reasons why it's a bad idea to allow a bill or a tip to go unpaid where you will be perceived to be responsible.

I think the reason for making the example about the tip rather than the food is that the cost to the waiting staff of not paying is likely to be more tangible and more severe. But that indicates to me that we're talking about charity rather than fairness (I don't mean to imply that there aren't requirements of justice to do many of the things which are customarily called 'charity'). Admittedly, from the perspective of the waiter, if you pay the whole of the tip he won't realise that you've been charitable towards him; rather he'll think that you and your friend just did what was fair to him. That's part of the reason that such an act of charity is so attractive - it won't in any way diminish the self-respect of the waiter, and it gives the waiter what he 'deserves' anyway. Moreover, Ridge's proposal looks like a non-starter in this case. If I were dining with only one friend, who unreasonably refused to tip, the only options I would consider would be paying only my share, and paying the whole tip, whereas Ridge wants me to split the difference. This perhaps reveals that my reasons for making up the tip aren't entirely moral: I don't want the tip to give the insulting impression that the service was not valued, and to achieve this only making up the full tip will suffice.

On the general point, I think that there probably are collective obligations where each party has an obligation to do more than her 'fair share' when others don't do theirs, but where she is not required to wholly make up for the deficits imposed by others even where she is able to do so. The reason will be that such a requirement would be over-demanding, and so psychologically untenable. We set the moral bar higher than fair shares but lower than, say, crude act-utilitarianism sets it. An example is our collective responsiblity to feed the starving. I suppose that this could happen with a collective promise, where the level of reneging was (unforseeably) very high, and so fulfilling the element of the promise involving paying the renegers' share becomes too demanding (this is an example of the general phenomenon of promises becoming non-binding when unforseen circumstances make it exceptionally difficult to fulfil them). But it doesn't seem to me that this applies to the simple case where there is one reneger and paying his share isn't particularly onerous. Making a genuinely collective promise had better impose some binding obligations, and those will extend to paying the full cost imposed by the reneger when this isn't onerous.

As for taking collective responsibility without full responsibility, that might mean acknowledging your membership of a responsible group, and promising to do your fair share. But that won't give you any obligation to do more than your fair share, unless you already had such an obligation antecedent to taking responsibility (I think it's usually true that people take responsibility for what they already are responsible for).

Sorry that I can't be as concise as you...

Carrie Jenkins said...

I'm only concise because blogging constitutes work-avoidance and therefore needs to be kept under careful control ... :)

"There doesn't seem to be a good reason in justice why you should have to pay the bill or the tip if your friends won't pay."

You're not moved then by the thought that, if you just pay your own share, *all* the burden created by the reneger falls on the waiter, who doesn't deserve this any more than the other diners do? Surely it would be better - that is, *fairer* - to divvy up the burden between the waiter and the non-reneging diners?

Daniel Elstein said...

Well, I do think there's *some* moral reason to divvy up the burden. The waiter deserves a full tip and you should try to make sure that people get what they deserve (I think that is a derivative part of justice at best, because I take requirements of desert to be institutional, and easily outweighed by direct requirements of justice). As far as I can see though, the only moral reason why *you* are particularly required to divide the burden is that you're the only one who knows about the situation and can do something about it that leaves the waiter none the wiser. You don't have a requirement to split the burden because of any *collective obligation* that you've undertaken. There are diverse intuitions about fairness that don't point to a unified category: it's unfair to break promises, it's unfair that people don't get what they deserve. I'm anxious to keep different kinds of unfairness apart.

Here's a question back: isn't it *always* unfair when someone doesn't get what they deserve because someone else breaches an obligation to them, and wouldn't it be fairer if you divided the burden of the breached obligation, regardless of your connection to the broken obligation?

Carrie Jenkins said...

Hmmm, good question. I guess my intuition is that it is always unfair, and it would be fairer to divide the burden. So my intuition about Ridge's cases seems to flow from a more generalized one that isn't particular to collective obligation. Interesting! That might be a plus for the Ridge view (I guess it's generally a good thing when your intuitions about something fit into a bigger picture). I don't trust my memory enough to say to what extent R was trying to argue that his verdict in the collective obligation cases is based on *special* features of those cases, but I don't remember him saying anything to that effect.