Monday, August 06, 2007

Fair Doesn't Mean Equal Doesn't Mean Identical

My favorite metasite,, served me this little article today. For those of you too lazy to actually click over, let me sum it up for you. A single dad writes in to an advice column to state that his single, 30 year old female neighbor often sunbathes topless, although face down. Not a problem, except dad's 14 year old twin boys play baseball in their backyard and occasionally hit a foul ball into her backyard, and when they go to retrieve it, they see her naked back, and maybe some side-boob action. Plus, one time, the woman asked one of the kids to rub some lotion on her back. Dad asks, do I need to put a stop to this? Female advice columnist says absolutely.

The comments from Fark readers contain much of what you'd expect. However, one argument was launched there which bears some analysis. A Farker, defending the advice columnist, said "If this was a 14 year old girl and a 30 year old man, no one would think this was okay. Ergo, it's not okay, our gender biases are just getting in the way of seeing the truth."

I encounter this kind of argument all the time, and the biggest problem is it has a thick patina of credibility. A high truthiness quotient, if you will. The argument is a total sham, and I want to equip all of you with the tools to shove this down the throat of the next person who launches this BS on you.

The whole argument proceeds from the false premise that, in order to treat 2 people fairly, we must treat them identically, i.e., in the case above, because we would condemn lotion rubbing between a 30 year old man and a 14 year old girl, we must/should also condemn lotion rubbing between a 30 year old woman and a 14 year old boy. This false premise ignores the fact that there are almost always logical reasons why you would treat different people differently. For example, assume you run a food shelf and, in an effort to be "fair," your rules are that each person who comes into the store gets 2 cups of rice and beans each day. Single guys and gals will do just fine under this rule, but people with families are now screwed, unless you parade the whole family in. The better rule would be 2 cups of rice and beans per day per household member.

Perennial presidential candidate loser Steve Forbes was best known for his Flat Tax proposal, which also proceeded from this same premise. His idea to tax everyone at the same rate presumed that doing so was the only way to be fair. The problem, of course, is that when you make $20,000, giving 20% of it back to the government leaves you with $16,000, which is not much to live on. When you make $200,000, it leaves you with $160,000, which is more than enough. Even though the process is equal, the results are unfair.

This carries forward into the realm of employment. All employees have strengths and weaknesses. A good boss finds ways to assign work that plays to his or her employees' strengths, so that in the end, everyone is a more-or-less equal contributor (this is the GOAL, mind you, not how it necessarily turns out, because some people are slacker assholes). In assigning different work to different employees, the boss is not (hopefully) playing favorites, but rather tailoring the work done by each employee to that employee's strengths.

So, the next time someone whips out this "treating everyone the same is the only way to be fair" BS, wallop them a good one. Dumbasses need to be scared away from their weak rhetorical tools.

1 comment:

Lord Bling said...

Excellent case you make, but then again, you ARE a lawyer. :)

Things can't always be equal. We strive for it, but there are always going to be exceptions. The flat tax example you gave is a good one.