Unfair in the Abstract, Fair in the Concrete

Over at Psychology Today, Josh Knobe reports on a new experiment by Shaun Nichols (see me diavlog with Nichols here) and Chris Freiman (an IHS friend of mine and David Schmidtz advisee):

Subjects who had been assigned to receive an abstract question were asked:

Suppose that some people make more money than others solely because they have genetic advantages. Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:

– It is fair that those genetically-advantaged people make more money than others.

Meanwhile, subjects who had been assigned to receive a concrete question were asked:

Suppose that Amy and Beth both want to be professional jazz singers. They both practice singing equally hard. Although jazz singing is the greatest natural talent of both Amy and Beth, Beth’s vocal range and articulation is naturally better than Amy’s because of differences in their genetics. Solely as a result of this genetic advantage, Beth’s singing is much more impressive. As a result, Beth attracts bigger audiences and hence gets more money than Amy. Please tell us whether you agree with the following statement:

– It is fair that Beth makes more money than Amy.

Surprisingly, subjects who were given the abstract question said that it was not fair, but subjects who were given the concrete question said that it actually was fair! In other words, it seems that each individual person is torn between left and right. People seem to have a kind of leftist intuition in the abstract but to move to the right when they turn to more concrete cases. Perhaps the differences we observe between the views of different individuals are due in part to the degree to which they hold on to this abstract principle.

I don’t actually think this is very surprising. Of course, the actual explanation of any pattern of holdings is always concrete. So repeat the Beth and Amy case a million times over, and you should still get “fair”. I’d guess this is why people with left-leaning ideologies tend not to unreflectively think that the relative success of friends and family is unfair. If pushed, they might retreat to higher level of abstraction and say they do think it’s unfair, but their revealed day-to-day talk and behavior tends not to reveal any serious suspicion of injustice in their own case.

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