CA Proposition 16 - Fairness

October 10, 2020 2:10 pm

Before we start I want to make clear the effort I put into considering the concept of "fairness." I've academically studied cooperative decision-making of multi-agent systems. Over the past year I read John Rawls' political treatise "Justice as Fairness." I've been working my way through T. M. Scanlon's "What we Owe to each Other." Along with many other works considering cooperation vs competition, human social structures, sociology, and psychology.

I'm interested not just in providing fairness, but understanding what "fair" is. I'm not saying I'm an expert, but that if you disagree with me at least consider that I have given the matter serious thought and that I'm probably not just a blithering idiot.

Recently I read "The Penguin and the Leviathan" by Yochai Benkler. The overall theme is how cooperative social structures survive and thrive in human society. But the specific thing I want to discuss here is from chapter 6: "Equal Halves: Fairness in Cooperation."

I couldn't start the conversation any better than this excerpt:

In looking through the experimental economics and social psychology literature, it seems that when we care about “fairness” we really care about three distinct things: fairness of outcomes, fairness of intentions, and fairness of processes. With regard to outcomes, we care about how much each of us gets out of an interaction relative to others, given the generally understood norms. For intentions, we particularly care when the outcomes are not “fair” given generally understood conventions for the situation, whether the unfair outcome was intentionally brought about or not. And as for processes, we care whether the way in which the outcome was achieved was fair or not, whatever the outcome and the intentions of the people involved.

Benkler goes on to describe the research data that attempts to tease out how people apply different concepts of fairness based on situational concerns, cultural backgrounds, and other individualized factors.

I found this chapter interesting because it brought clarity to discussions I've had with people in the past when we were both talking about what would be "fair" but seemed to come to completely different conclusions given the same data. I realize that for myself I innately interpret "fairness" to mean "fairness of processes." I say "innately" because it seems so obvious to me that this should be what "fairness" is that it's hard to see any argument against it.

Fairness of processes. Regardless of who you are, where you came from, the color of your skin, the manner of your speech, or how much money you have; under the same circumstances you should receive the same treatment. Is this not the embodiment of "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal..."? Surely this is the standard for which we should strive in the systems and structures we design and implement in the world around us.

Seeing a discussion of the academic research makes it clear that, no, many people don't see it that way. And this is where things rapidly become messy.

So what does this have to do with Proposition 16?

Proposition 16 proposes to remove the following section (and some related text) from the California Constitution:

The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

In my eyes this entirely hinges around interpreting "fairness" to mean "fairness of processes," "fairness of outcomes," or "fairness of intentions." I see that section of the constitution to be a huge win for "fairness of processes." Of course the state shouldn't get to discriminate based on those concepts. However, opponents instead see that language as an impediment to "fairness of outcomes" in which they want to subvert "fairness of processes" to attempt to correct for unfairness in origin. I'm not sure how a "fairness of intentions" would interpret the proposition. Perhaps either way, seeing that the intentions behind keeping the text and removing the text are both to create fairness in treatment for citizens of California in which there may be adverse outcomes for some members of the population.

The repeal-this-section outlook seems to suggest that if a racer starts further away from the finish line we should make part of their lane a moving sidewalk to help them catch up. Whether one interprets such actions as producing a contest that's more "fair" is in the eye of the beholder (setting aside whether it would make the race more interesting to watch).

My goal isn't to create an argument about affirmative action, but to try to provide a light on why this discussion is so difficult to have in the first place: What people mean by "fair" can be fundamentally different.

Personally I see removing that language from the constitution to be a bad thing. It undermines "fairness of process" which is how I view fairness as a baseline. I think impinging on "fairness of process" in an attempt to improve "fairness of outcome" is fraught with dangers. One of which will be alienating those people that see "fair" as "fairness of processes;" another being that when the process is known to not be fair then it incentivizes people to misrepresent themselves in order to obtain the more favorable treatment.

An example of people misrepresenting themselves to take advantage of an "unfair process" happened in Disney parks. Disney would allow groups that included visitors with disabilities to skip long lines for attractions. Though implemented with the best of intentions, unscrupulous visitors began taking advantage of this "unfairness of process" by hiring disabled persons to guide them around the parks skipping lines for their own personal convenience at the expense of everyone waiting patiently in line.

I give this example not to say that Disney shouldn't have this accommodation (though in response to the opportunists I believe they changed the accommodation to only allow the disabled guest and a buddy to skip the lines). My point is that when you intentionally design "unfairness of processes" people will take advantage to set themselves even further ahead and you have to be able to address that or risk further alienating those who are not advantaged by the system.

I don't have any grand answer to these issues. Which is why I fall back on "fairness of processes" because I think that in many situations the ability to define admissible metrics and clearly manage all the confounding variables in order to "fairly" subvert "fairness of processes" with the goal of improving "fairness of outcomes" is intractable and it's simpler to implement fair processes and then attempt to deal with the inherent unfairnesses of life in programs run outside the official processes of government.

A final thought on the matter is that one should consider what happens if people who might act contrary to your goals were in charge with your rules. Were the government run by a group that was actively racist or sexist or some other manner of discrimination, would you feel more comfortable with this clause being in the constitution or it being removed? I'd certainly sleep better knowing that malevolence could be contained by constituional protections.

The Show America Needed

February 2, 2020 11:42 am

This past week the TV show, "The Good Place" aired its series finale. It's not the kind of show that comes along very often and I think it was desperately needed.

It was a show that was unabashedly about ethics and moral philosophy. Actual, meaningful philosophical content presented in a format that was accessible to people that have never broached the subject before.

It wasn't another anti-hero, vigilantism, and vengeance story line. Those stories have been popular lately, and I've enjoyed watching them, but I think they are teaching audiences that you can do whatever you want so long as you say it's for the greater good (as defined by you). Their behavior is explicitly rationalized as the ends justifying any means. It can be satisfying to watch the Punisher ignore the laws in order to make the villains pay for their crimes. But it's not healthy for actual society to be filled with self-proclaimed vigilantes doing whatever they feel like and justifying it afterwards.

"The Good Place" was explicitly about coming to terms with what it means to act ethically. Considering the intent and outcome of our behavior in real terms and having at least an internal discussion about what is right; what is fair, what is just.

It was a comedy, so it was generally lighthearted and, at times, goofy. But it covered important ground in moral reasoning and I think it avoided coming across as preachy.

We should consider our actions and do our best. We will fail. And we can take time to reflect on our failures and shortcomings and then do better.

Spoilers in this paragraph! If there's some kind of existence beyond mortality, I'd like it to be something like the one exhibited at the show's end: An unbounded opportunity to learn, grow, and improve until we reach our full potential as moral beings; the ability to enjoy all that existence has to offer; and then, on our own terms, the chance to say, "I'm ready to move on."

If you didn't watch it, go and do so. I think seasons 1-3 are on Netflix currently. I don't know if Netflix will also get season 4 or if it will all move over to NBC's streaming service. The entire series will be available on blu-ray in May. Go find it and watch it. And consider what you can do that will make someone else feel that you've made their life better.

The "Better than Nothing" Philosophy

January 19, 2018 2:21 pm

Many times the thing stopping us from getting something done or making a change in our lives is simply that we are daunted by what we think we "should" do and instead do nothing.

Doing nothing ensures nothing is accomplished.  Doing something, anything, will get us closer to our goal than just being overwhelmed by what we think we should do and instead doing nothing.  Start by doing something--even if it's not remotely close to what you think you "should" be doing.

This is my "better than nothing" philosophy.

My most blatant example comes from work.  After years of lamenting we had no monitoring solution in place to notify us if our applications were not working I used a Hackathon day to create "Better than Nothing Monitoring".  It's not great.  It's probably not even good.  But, it's better than nothing; which is what we had before.  Something is better than nothing.

Also from work, having a robust test suite helps catch bugs in our software before we deploy it to users.  For a long time we didn't have any tests.  Now we have some, but not nearly enough.  When I'm working on an old piece of code, rather than lament not having the perfect test suite or the time to build it now, I'll implement the simplest kind of test: "this thing runs without throwing an exception."  We should have better testing than that, but, when we don't, it's better than nothing.

Feel like you should be saving more money?  You sit down, calculate out how much you "should" be saving per paycheck, but never seem to manage to do it and end up saving nothing?  Ignore the "should" and start saving something.  Maybe start with $5 that you put in a savings account every paycheck.  It's not much.  It's barely anything.  But it's better than nothing.  If you're paid bi-weekly, at the end of the year you'll have $130.  That's not much either, but it's more than you would have saved fretting over what you "should" have done.

Feel like you should be exercising more?  Do you think, "I really should go for a run this week, or ride my bike, or play Wii Fit," but you never quite seem to make it happen?  Stop worrying about it.  Start so small you barely notice: if you're using the elevator at work, take the stairs one or two floors first; do a couple push-ups or sit-ups before going to bed.  Maybe you can only do two push-ups today.  That's better than nothing.

Wish you read more books, but getting through even one chapter just takes too long?  Read a couple of paragraphs at a time instead.  You'll get through more books reading 3 paragraphs a day than you will wishing you had enough time to read full chapters.  It's better than nothing.

Many times I finish up a task at work and pull up our work log to decide what to do next.  I've long since completed all the low-hanging fruit and I scan through the list of tickets thinking, "Uggghh, that's going to take forever, I'll pick something else."  And, big surprise, those work items are still in the queue months later.  Eventually you just have to start.  Pick the smallest piece of the puzzle that makes any sense and get just that piece done.  The overall task isn't done, but it's closer than it was.  It's better than nothing.

Most of these examples are habit items: saving money, exercising, reading.  In these cases the actual accomplishment today is less important than the habit you're creating.  You can increase your daily, better-than-nothing effort to get gradually closer to your "should" level of effort.  Doing 2 push-ups and 5 sit-ups every day takes about 45 seconds.  That's clearly not anything near the 150-minutes per week of moderate physical activity recommended by the American Heart Association, but it's better than nothing.  As you get stronger, 2 & 5 can fairly seamlessly become 5 & 10, then 10 & 20, then 20 & 40 and now you might be exercising for 7 minutes a day.  Still not what you "should" be doing, but worrying that you "should" be doing 20 minutes a day and doing nothing is worse than doing 7 minutes a day.

What is it you're trying to accomplish?  Pick any activity, no matter how small, towards that goal which you can start doing today.  Go do it.

It's better than nothing.

Worry, Concern, and Hope

December 9, 2016 10:51 am

I worry.

I worry the country will be a worse place when my girls grow up.

I worry our nation will blind itself to its faults.

I worry that anger and violence will increase.


I recognize that surrounding every atrocity has been a society of good people quietly saying, "That will never happen here.  We're better than that.  Let's just keep our heads down and get through this."

How does one find a balance between wariness, activism, fear, and over-reaction?

I don't know.

Are people in the U.S. currently over-reacting to President-elect Trump's language, decisions, and actions?  I hope so.  For it to be an over-reaction means things aren't really as bad as they might seem.

Four years ago I wrote about the dangers of nationalism.  That post is more relevant now that it was then.  Please go read it.

I am greatly concerned that President-elect Trump regularly, publicly attacks, demeans, and insults any opposition to his actions or opinions.  No one likes being the subject of public ridicule and I am concerned people will keep their mouths shut to avoid this treatment rather than oppose him.

I am concerned that dissent will be suppressed.

I am concerned that President-elect Trump seems to be gathering a body of "loyalists" to surround him in Washington rather than competent and qualified individuals (even if I disagree with their views).

I am concerned that many people no longer feel safe going about their day.

I am concerned that an elected State Representative was harassed and berated for her religion and ethnicity during a cab ride in the nation's capital.

I am concerned that the next few years may be marked by conflict escalation between Trump supporters and opponents.

I am concerned that the next 20 years in the United States may subject us to some type of nationalistic violence within our borders.


I hope these concerns are unfounded.

I hope for peaceful dissent and respectful disagreement.

I hope for a nation that can recognize it has faults even if we disagree on how to fix them.

I hope the country is a better place for my girls when they grow up.

I hope.

My children will not be obedient

September 1, 2016 9:01 am

My children will not be obedient and I will never teach them to be obedient.  Obedience is to betray your own sense of morality and instead substitute someone else's.

Obedience is to do what you're told regardless of what is right.
Morality is to do what is right regardless of what you're told. --Unknown

I believe we have an obligation to act morally rather than obediently.  This is one of the fundamental issues that puts me at odds with LDS theology.  LDS theology defines morality as obedience.

For example, the Book of Mormon starts out with a story of Nephi being commanded by God to murder and rob a drunk man lying in the street in order to then go to the man's home and steal a book.  The LDS Church teaches that this was a great and noble act of obedience and we should all strive to be as obedient as Nephi.  The lesson is that we all must be willing to commit murder if we believe God is commanding us to do it.

Similarly with the story of Abraham and Isaac.  We are taught that we should be so obedient that we will murder our own children and this is adored as virtuous.

The LDS lessons on obedience range from disturbing, to completely nonsensical, to truly concerning.

One of the more disturbing lessons I've come across was given by Staheli of the Quorum of the 70 in the April 1998 General Conference:

While I have had my share of lessons on obedience during my life, one of the most memorable was taught to me as a young boy by my dog and my mother. When I was about eight years of age, my father brought home a puppy which I promptly named Spot. We became the greatest of pals as I tried to teach him a few tricks and obedience to my commands. He learned well, except he could not conquer an overwhelming desire to chase and bark at cars as they came down the dusty street by our home in our small southern Utah town. As hard as I tried, I could not break Spot of his bad habit. One day a neighbor came speeding by in his large truck. He knew Spot and he knew Spot’s bad habit. This time, just as Spot approached the truck in his usual aggressive manner, this man swerved toward Spot, running over him with the rear wheel of his truck.

With tears streaming down my face, I cradled Spot in my arms and ran to the house, calling to my mother and brother for help. As we washed the blood from his head, it soon became apparent that Spot’s disobedient act had dealt him a fatal blow. As the burial of Spot was completed and the tears dried, my mother then taught me one of the great lessons of life as she explained the principle of obedience and its application in my life. She made clear that seemingly small acts of disobedience can result in longer-term consequences of unhappiness, regrets, and even fatal results. --Staheli

The lesson here is clearly not that the neighbor who willfully and intentionally murdered his dog was at fault.  Nor was Staheli himself at fault though he was responsible for the dog's welfare.  It was dog's fault for being disobedient.  And if we're not obedient we might be murdered too.

Here's one example of a nonsensical lesson from a Young Women's lesson manual (manual 3, Chapter 25):

Explain that one of the primary aims of science is to discover additional laws. When scientists discover these higher laws and obey them, marvelous things can happen. The successful landing of men on the moon is an example of the importance of obedience. Men spent years concentrating on discovering and obeying the natural laws that governed gravity, jet propulsion, and other things. Their obedience resulted in the successful landing of a man on the moon. --YW Lesson Manual

The laws of physics are not something you can choose to obey or not.  The entire paragraph makes no sense in the context of trying to teach that obedience is a virtue.

And finally, the lesson that I find truly concerning and really highlights that in LDS theology there is no greater act than obedience.  In 1980, Ezra Taft Benson gave a talk, "The Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet" in which he quotes Marion G. Romney from the October 1960 General Conference:

I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home … Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: "My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it." Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "But you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray." --Marion Romney

There are two fundamental problems in this quote.  One is that the prophet is infallible.  If "the Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray" then the prophet must be infallible as far as leading the Church is concerned.  Which contradicts the "leaders are not infallible" explanation that is used whenever doctrine has to be revised.

But the truly concerning part of that quote is that we're told to obey the prophet even when he tells us to do things that are wrong.  That our own sense of morality and our own exercise of agency is so irrelevant that if the prophet tells us to murder our neighbors we need to be obedient and not question else "[we] become [our] own prophet. [We] decide what the Lord wants and what the Lord doesn’t want" (same source, N. Eldon Tanner).  And for some reason a God that granted us agency will find this not only acceptable but laudable.

I find that Galileo had a much more appropriate view on the matter:

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use. --Galileo

Obedience has been used to drive people to great evil throughout history.  I don't want people learning obedience.  I don't want my children learning obedience.  Obedience is too easy to corrupt and can only be unblemished under the direction of a benevolent and infallible dictatorship.  Since the LDS Church readily admits that no mortal is infallible (despite teaching that the prophet cannot lead the Church astray) we should really be wary of the constant demand for obedience.

Far better to practice morality rather than obedience.  Morality is to determine for oneself what differentiates right from wrong; to develop your own, internal standard of behavior.  Morality is harder than obedience.  You have to study, ponder, wrestle with, and defend your actions.  You don't get to explain your actions with, "I was just following orders."

I will not teach my children obedience.  I will teach them morality.  And I do so with the recognition that morality is harder to teach than obedience.  Teaching obedience can be done with nothing more than fear.  Teaching morality requires teaching awareness, compassion, reasoning, justice, mercy, introspection, empathy, and self-confidence.  I will feel a failure as a parent if my children ever defend their actions by saying, "I was just doing what I was told."

LDS theology is that our purpose on Earth is to exercise our agency and learn to discern right from wrong.  Supposing that is accurate I have a hard time believing that when we die and stand to be judged that the correct answer to "Why did you act that way?" will be "Because you said so."