The Unique and the Recurrent: Mercy v. Justice, 3

Suppose you and another person are paired up. I then give twenty one-dollar bills to the other person. It’s entirely up to the other person whether to hand over to you any of it, and if so, how much. You can’t do anything about that. You do, however, have the option to nix the whole thing. You can say “no deal,” and then I’ll take all $20 back, and neither of you will get anything. Your two choices are: (a) take whatever is offered, or (b) get nothing (in which case the other person also gets nothing).

So suppose the other person offers you $1. Would you take it, or would you say, "no deal"? They get 19 and you get 1. Is that fair? On the other hand, it is one more dollar than you had before.

Most people, upon being offered $1 will say “no deal.” They’d rather have nothing – and punish the other person for being so “selfish.”

On the other hand, most people don’t insist on a perfectly equitable 10-10 split. They understand that they have no claim to a fully equal share under these circumstances.

Would you accept one dollar? How about two? Three? Five? Nothing less than eight?

People are variable, but on average, six dollars will do it. For some people, five is enough, and for others it takes at least 7, but on average, a 6-14 split is regarded as fair, and will be accepted. Less than six dollars, and the chances are good you’ll say “no deal,” and both of you will go home empty-handed.

Is this rational? If you know this is a one-shot opportunity, wouldn’t it be more rational to take the $1? That would be better than nothing.

But our brains aren’t built to think that way. It’s really hard to convince our brains that anything is truly a one-shot opportunity. We are built to be social animals, and our strong predisposition is to treat everything as recurrable. Whatever people I’m dealing with today, I’ll probably be dealing with tomorrow. Throughout our evolutionary history, that was true. So the reason most people won't accept a one dollar offer is that their brains are wired to avoid getting a reputation as a patsy. Under early human conditions, it was rational for me to go home with nothing this time so that I can establish I’m a person to be reckoned with. If I show that I'm prepared to spitefully deny you $19 without any gain to myself, then next time you'll probably offer me more.

No matter how much the experimenter tells me that there isn’t going to be a next time, my brain is just not built to believe it. It won’t think that way.

Sometimes, however, my brain might try to make someone else think that way. Or, at least, some people's brains might. A few years ago I happened to catch some reality TV depicting a couple at an all-you-can-eat buffet. They gorged themselves. Three piled-high plates. Then they went back and piled high fourth plates. They made only a small dent in their fourth plates and asked the restaurant staff for to-go boxes. They were, of course, told, "No, you don’t get a to-go box at an all-you-can-eat buffet."

“But you’re just going to have to throw this food away,” the couple argued. “Why not let us have it?”

The manager was called. She came over and stood firm. No to-go box. She knew this is not a one-shot scenario. She was willing to let the food go to waste this time so that a precedent would not be established that would encourage people to take a lot more food without paying any more money.

This photo is unique. At the same time, there are a number
of types of photo it fits into: nature, smiling person, single
person in nature, hiking, Appalachian Trail, springtime,
New York, amateur snapshot, digital, color, etc.
At the same time, life does present us with unique, not-to-be-repeated situations. And that’s where the balance of justice and mercy comes in.

Insofar as a situation presents recurrent features, we can come up with procedures for how we’re going to handle that. And that’s the meaning of justice: that like cases are handled alike. Ideally, everyone knows the procedure, it is universally followed, and expectations are always met. That would be an ideal of justice.

We recognize the reality that types of situations recur – and so we have justice. We also recognize the reality that no two situations are ever exactly alike – and so we have mercy. Types of situations recur; specific situations, in their full multiplicity of detail, do not.

The question we confront, in each situation, is: what’s more important here? Every situation we face simultaneously:
(a) is unique and never to be repeated, and
(b) belongs to a number of various types of situation which may recur.

Sometimes it's the unrepeatable uniqueness that's most important. Sometimes it's the recurrent type that's more important.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Mercy v Justice"
Next: Part 4: Presence
Previous: Part 2: Cucumbers and Grapes
Beginning: Part 1: In Which Mr. Entrekin Introduces Me to Portia and I Learn a New Way to Be Obnoxious
Photo by Meredith Garmon

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