Saturday, February 23, 2008

What is fair?

A somewhat lively debate about the fairness of allowing job flexibility to parents has been going on, first at “On being a scientist and a woman” where ScienceWoman recounted an absolutely horrific story about being told that she should pick up extra work because the male colleague who was supposed to do it shouldn’t be burdened because “he’s got a little one at home”. This, to a woman who has a one year old daughter herself. So, a few whiny little piss-ants piped up in the comments, saying “It’s not fair – those breeders get all kinds of slack, and we poor, single and childless people are working ourselves to death to carry the load. And Zuska called them on it on “Thus Spake Zuska”. Of course, I had to get in the fray. You can all read the posts and comments if you want, but I’m really bringing this up because it made me start to think about what does "fair" really mean?

As a parent, I have had to develop a pretty nuanced definition for fairness that I use when dealing with my family. For those of you not in the family way, let me lay out the problem for you – there are four people, who all need things like food, clothing, education, attention, etc, and those resources are limited. How do you divvy things up in a fair way? Well, I can tell you the short answer: fair is not the same as equal. The simpler case is to just consider the kids. My two year old does not eat the same amount of food as her nine year old sister (or her 6’4” father, for that matter). Nor does she need to be bought the same amount of new clothes as her older sister; she has plenty of serviceable items waiting for her in storage. She does, however, require a safe, reliable and stimulating environment in which to spend the day while both of her parents are at work. For a toddler, that’s really expensive, but her sister can go to the excellent public school near us for free. And, she needs to be engaged in something or with someone almost all the time at home, so that she doesn’t decide to entertain herself by turning back-flips off the couch. Meanwhile, her sister can happily read a book while waiting for dinner. If we look at each category (food, clothing, education, attention) separately, it is clear that one child is getting more than the other. I’m not even going to try and make any kind of claim about how the books balance overall. Because I don’t care. What is important to me is that these two human beings in my care are having their needs met. Their needs are not identical, so what they get is not identical either.

I think that this could be considered to fall under the category of moral reasoning. Lawrence Kohlberg did significant research into the development of moral reasoning, and he found that there are six stages of moral reasoning, grouped into three levels:

Level 1 – Preconventional Morality (typically seen in children younger than 10 or 11)

  • Stage 1 – Obedience and Punishment Orientation
    In this stage, children see rules as things that exists outside of themselves. They obey these rules for fear of punishment.
  • Stage 2 – Individualism and Exchange
    This is the stage at which children begin to realize that different people have different points of view, and that what is right for one person may not be right for another. However, they still see punishment for breaking “the rules” as something to be avoided.

Level 2 – Conventional Morality (children begin to exhibit this as they enter their teen years)
  • Stage 3 – Good Interpersonal Relationships
    At this stage, children begin to be concerned about the intentions behind an action, and judge actions accordingly. They believe that people should have the best interests of their family and community in mind.
    Stage 4 – Maintaining the Social Order
  • In this stage, people move from being concerned with what is best for friends and family to what is best for society as a whole. There is an emphasis on following rules, not for fear of punishment, but because we must do so to maintain order.

Level 3 – Postconventional Morality
  • Stage 5 – Social Contract and Individual Rights
    It is at this stage that people begin to think about the difference between a smoothly functioning society and a “good society”. They feel that individual rights should be protected, and that there should be some democratic mechanism for changing the rules if they are unfair.
  • Stage 6 – Universal Principles
    At this stage, a person makes decisions based on the principles of justice, which apply to all people. This is similar to Stage 5, except that at this level, civil disobedience may be seen as an obligation in response to an unjust law (think Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Hope you are still with me. Here’s the point of all this – when you hear someone saying “I worked 5 hours and you only worked 4,” they are using Stage 1 moral reasoning, what you might expect from a five year old.

When someone else says, “Why do you get to leave work early because your kid is sick? I’ve got stuff to do, too,” that is probably Stage 2, which you'd expect from someone less than 10 years old.

What about, “I don’t mind if you need to take some time, as long as you plan to make up for it,”? Well, I’d put that at Stage 3, a teenager, maybe.

“Look, the work has to get done somehow, everybody has to put in some extra hours.” I’ll generously give that a Stage 4.

Supposedly Democratic governments are modeled on Stage 5 reasoning. I like to think that I live in a Democratic society, so I’d like to see at least that level of reasoning applied to the issue of "Parental Accomodation". What do I think that would look like? Maybe something like, “I understand that you have to take care of your kids, and that’s going to require us to be creative in structuring your work schedule. Let’s figure this out.”

Is that really too much to ask? I don't think so.

(In the interest of fairness, I am choosing to write about fairness as regards parental obligations because that is what impacts me, not because I don't think there are other issues out there that require accomodation of this type. Also, I am not a psychologist, so this is a lay-person's reading of Kohlberg.)


contrary-wise said...


It stuns me that people can argue about "fairness" in such narrow ways in these discussions. Narrow and often misogynistic ways. It's so freaking obvious to me that raising children is a "greater good," not some kind of "personal choice." Who is going to work to pay for Social Security when all these child-free types are old and retired?

And who raised these people? Do these people hate their parents too? Do they resent their parents for needing care or financial assistance in their old age? Or are the people making these arguments so steeped in their upper-middle class values that they can't comprehend a world where people actually need care? Do they all live in a world where you can just pay someone else (likely as not, working class women) to do it?

I'm so glad you're talking about this stuff.

Bob said...

No, your reasoning is fucked up and I think you're fucking cheeky referring to certain approaches to dealing with parents as juvenile logic. If you are employed then you have made a commitment to that job, in much the same way as you have to your kids. The work has to get done is just the same as the kid needs a safe environment. Its not about time, its about getting the job done and if someone can't do the job because of a kid then they need to seriously think about their priorities (part time vs full time vs stay at home parent).

So fairness in these situations is that no one gives a fuck provided you get your job done. If someone has an issue with 'face time' and 'hours worked' when the job is done properly, then they're an idiot. But don't play into the 'we're superior because we have kids' attitude. That sucks and flys in the face of all the personal choice shit you like so much.

Amanda said...

I really liked this post. It has given me some things to think about when I'm dealing with colleagues. I'm child-less, but my husband lives in another state. So, it requires some creative scheduling to figure out how to see him twice a month.

(By the way I found you through DrugMonkey's site)