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Mental Model: Kantian Fairness Tendency

The Kantian Fairness Tendency refers to the pursuit of perfect fairness which causes a lot of terrible problems.

Charlie Munger, twice referenced this mental model. First in this UCCB talk:

It is not always recognized that, to function best, morality should sometimes appear unfair, like most worldly outcomes. The craving for perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function. Some systems should be made deliberately unfair to individuals because they’ll be fairer on average for all of us. I frequently cite the example of having your career over, in the Navy, if your ship goes aground, even if it wasn’t your fault. I say the lack of justice for the one guy that wasn’t at fault is way more than made up by a greater justice for everybody when every captain of a ship always sweats blood to make sure the ship doesn’t go aground. Tolerating a little unfairness to some to get a greater fairness for all is a model I recommend to all of you. But again, I wouldn’t put it in your assigned college work if you want to be graded well, particularly in a modern law school wherein there is usually an over-love of fairness-seeking process.

And second in his essay entitled: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment:

Kant was famous for his “categorical imperative,” a sort of a “golden rule” that required humans to follow those behavior patterns that, if followed by all others, would make the surrounding human system work best for everybody. And it is not too much to say that modern acculturated man displays, and expects from others, a lot of fairness as thus defined by Kant.

In a small community having a one-way bridge or tunnel for autos, it is the norm in the United States to see a lot of reciprocal courtesy, despite the absence of signs or signals. And many freeway drivers, including myself, will often let other drivers come in front of them, in lane changes or the like, because that is the courtesy they desire when roles are reversed. Moreover, there is, in modern human culture, a lot of courteous lining up by strangers so that all are served on a “firstcome-first-served” basis.

Also, strangers often voluntarily share equally in unexpected, unearned good and bad fortune. And, as an obverse consequence of such “fair-sharing” conduct, much reactive hostility occurs when fairsharing is expected yet not provided. It is interesting how the world’s slavery was pretty well abolished during the last three centuries after being tolerated for a great many previous centuries during which it coexisted with the world’s major religions. My guess is that Kantian Fairness Tendency was a major contributor to this result.

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Professor Sanjay Bakshi makes a connection between the Kantian Fairness Tendency and the “law of the higher good” from Machiavelli’s The Prince. He had this to say to his students:

Machiavelli’s “The Prince” is a great book and should be made compulsory reading for all MBA students.

To many people, The Prince is an evil book. But Joseph L. Badaracco, who teaches a hugely popular course titled “The Moral Leader” at the Harvard Business School uses this book to teach ethics. And he teaches ethics by telling students to follow Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince.

In an interview, Badaracco has said that four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in classroom discussions of The Prince at HBS:

Version 1 : “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2 : “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs… To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3 : Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4 : “A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.” Students who claim the fourth Prince, Badaracco said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in this world, “and not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”

One of my favourite mental models comes from The Prince. I call this model, the “law of the higher good“. Before I read The Prince, I read an excellent book called, “The Contrarian Guide to Leadership” by Steven Sample. In this book, which was recommended by Mr. Munger, Sample’s thoughts on the law of the higher good from The Prince resonated very well with what Mr. Munger has been advocating for years.

I reproduce here an extract from Sample’s book which deals with the law of the higher good:

“Let me clarify the most fundamental misunderstanding. Machiavelli was not an immoral or even an amoral man; as mentioned earlier, he had a strong set of moral principles. But he was driven by the notion of a higher good: an orderly state in which citizens can move about at will, conduct business, safeguard their families and possessions, and be free of foreign intervention or domination. Anything which could harm this higher good, Machiavelli argued, must be opposed vigorously and ruthlessly. Failure to do so out of either weakness or kindness was condemned by Machiavelli as being contrary to the interests of the state, just as it would be contrary to the interests of a patient for his surgeon to refuse to perform a needed operation out of fear that doing so would inflict pain on the patient.”

The law of the higher good is a terribly useful model for leaders because it forces them to think about things from a totally different perspective.

Here’s a hypothetical situation to ponder about:

You are in charge of running a retail store and one of your cashiers, an elderly woman, is caught committing a minor embezzlement. Fearing that she might be dismissed, she approaches you to plead forgiveness. She tells you that this is the first time she embezzled money from the company and promises that she’ll never do it again. She tells you about her sad situation, namely that her husband is very ill and that she was going to use the money to buy medicines for him. She becomes extremely emotional and your heart is melting. What do you do?

Something similar to the above situation was described by Mr. Munger in a talk given by him. He used two models to produce his answer. The first model was probability. Mr. Munger implores you to reduce the problem to the mathematics of Fermat/Pascal by asking the question: How likely is it that the old woman’s statement, “I’ve never done it before, I’ll never do it again” is true?

Note that this question has nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances in this particular instance of embezzlement. Rather, Munger is relying on his knowledge of the theory of probability. He asks: “If you found 10 embezzlements in a year, how many of them are likely to be first offences?”

The possible actions are: (1) She is lying and you fire her (good outcome – because it cures the problem and sends the right signals); (2) She is telling the truth and you fire her (bad outcome for her but good outcome for system integrity); (3) She is lying and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity); and (4) She is telling the truth and you pardon her (bad outcome for system integrity because it will send the wrong signal that its ok to embezzle once).

Weighed with probabilities, and after considering signalling effects of your actions on other people’s incentives and its effect on system integrity, its clear that the woman should be fired.

Looked this way, this is not a legal problem or an ethical problem. Its an arithmetical problem with a simple solution. This extreme reductionism of practical problems to a fundamental discipline (in this case mathematics), is, of course, the hallmark of the Munger way of thinking and living.

So, from a leader’s perspective, it’s more important to have the right systems with the right incentives in place, rather than trying to be fair to one person – even if that person is the leader or someone close to the leader.

The logic is that leaders must look at such situations from their civilization’s point of view rather than the viewpoint of an individual. If we create systems which encourage embezzlements, or tolerate such systems, we’ll ruin our civilization. If we don’t punish the woman, the idea that its ok to do minor embezzlement once in a while, will spread because of incentive effects, and social proof (everyone’s doing it so its ok). And we cannot let that idea spread because that will ruin our civilization. Its that simple.

Kantian Fairness is part of the Farnam Street latticework of Mental Models.