Thursday, September 24, 2020

Discrimination and coin tosses

Bob is deciding whom to hire for a job where race is clearly irrelevant to job performance. There are two clear front-runners. Bob hires the white front-runner because that candidate is white.

Bob has done something very wrong. Why was it wrong? A naive thought is that what he did wrong was to take into account something irrelevant to job performance while deciding whom to hire. But that can’t be right. For suppose that all the job-performance related facts were on par as far as Bob could tell. And then suppose that Alice when dealing with a similar case just said to herself “Heads, A, and tails, B”, tossed a coin, got tails, and hired candidate B. Alice didn’t do anything wrong. But Alice also made a decision on the basis of something irrelevant to job performance, namely whether the prior heads/tails assignment to a candidate matched the outcome of the coin toss.

In terms of deciding on irrelevancies, the paradigm of a fair tie-breaking procedure—a coin flip—and the paradigm of an unfair tie-breaking procedure—a racist decision—look very similar.

Here is a standard thing to say about this (cf. Scanlon): When the job-performance related facts are tied, and we still have to choose, we just have to choose on the basis of something not related to job performance. But that something had better not be something that forms the basis for large-scale patterns of dominance in society. Both Alice’s and Bob’s procedures are based on something not related to job performance, but Bob’s procedure is an instance of a large-scale social pattern of dominance.

I want to propose an account of why Bob did wrong and Alice did not that seems to me to differ slightly from the standard story (or maybe it just is a version of it). To that end, consider a third story. Carl runs a graduate program where he has to make lots of hard choices about current students, e.g., about travel-funding, stipend-renewal, lab and office allocation, etc., and these choices often involve ties on the usual academic metrics. (This is not a description of the Baylor philosophy program: we have lots of funding, and rarely if ever had to break ties regarding funding.) Carl is lazy and has decided to simplify things for himself by saving the number of coin tosses he has to make. Instead, whenever a student is admitted, Carl chooses a random number between one and a thousand and assigns that number to the student, re-rolling the random number generator if that number matches the number of a student already in the program. Thereafter, whenever a tie is to be broken, Carl always breaks the tie in favor of the student with the higher pre-assigned number.

Carl’s tie-breaking procedure is like Alice’s in terms of randomness and lack of alignment with larger social patterns of discrimination. But it’s still a terrible procedure. It’s terrible, because it distributes benefits and burdens in a seriously unequal way: if you got randomly assigned a low number at admission, you are stuck with it and keep on missing out on goodies that people assigned a high number got.

One can now explain what goes wrong in Bob’s procedure as something rather like what went wrong in Carl’s procedure: given structural racism, the minority candidate, call him Dave, passed over by Bob has tended to have been on the negative side of many other decisions (some of them perhaps being racist tie-breaking decisions, and many of them being even more unjust than that). Bob’s procedure has contributed to Dave having a life of tending to get the short end of the stick, just as Carl’s procedure has led a number of students having a graduate career with a tendency to getting the short end of the stick. And a tendency to getting the short of the end of the stick is something we should (at least typically) not contribute to.

This is close to the standard account about Bob’s racism. It likewise involves the large-scale patterns of dominance in society. But it seems to me also importantly different: The large-scale patterns of dominance in society are relevant to Bob’s action insofar as they make it likely that Dave has been on the unfavorable side of too many decisions. In the graduate program case, there may be no larger social patterns that match the ones within the program (or at least not pre-existing ones), and even within the program there need not be any significant interpersonal patterns of dominance between the persons assigned high numbers and low numbers, especially if the initial numerical assignments and the tie-breaking procedure are kept secret from the students, who just say things like, “My luck is terrible!” (This is going to be most likely in a program where students are oblivious to their social environment due to a focus on their individual research.)

In the alternate account, the focus is on the individual rather than the group, and the larger social facts are relevant precisely as they have impacted the individual. But this may seem to miss out on a common dimension of invidious discrimination. If I am a member of a group and someone else in the group is unfairly discriminated against, then that is apt to harm me in two ways: first, because I am apt to have a special concern for other members of the group (either because they are members of the group, or because persons more closely related to me tend to be members of the group), and harm to someone I have a special concern for is harm to me, and, second, because seeing someone like me get harmed scares me.

But I think this fits with my individualistic story by just multiplying the number of times that Dave gets the short end of the stick: sometimes he gets the short end of the stick directly and sometimes he gets it indirectly by having someone else in his group get it.

At the same time, I have to say that this is material I know next to nothing about. Take it with a grain of salt.


Brian Cutter said...

Really interesting. I wonder what you think about this case: suppose I'm a Mets fan, and I'm deciding whether to hire A or B, who are equally qualified. I find out A is a Mets fan and B isn't, and on this basis, I decide to hire A. It seems to me that this is wrong, or at least this is morally worse than relying on a coin flip. But it's not clear that either of the proposals you discuss can account for this intuition. Favoring Mets fans isn't linked to any large scale patterns of dominance in society, and my decision doesn't cause any individual to have a tendency to get the short end of the stick. (Suppose that, after I hire a person, I don't make further decisions, e.g., about promotions, on the basis of what sports teams they like.)

Maybe the thing to say here is that favoring Mets fans is a special case of something more general, namely: favoring people I like for personal reasons unrelated to job qualifications. And this more general thing is linked to broader patterns of dominance in society, whereby advantages go to more likable people in an unfair way, or something along those lines.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Good question! I am really not sure about this.

If you're the owner of your company, I am inclined to think there is nothing wrong with this, just as there need be nothing wrong with a company owner hiring family members.

If you're working for someone else, then there is a good chance that it is one of the implicit assumptions of your job description that you don't make such decisions on such a basis. But suppose you check with the owner, and they're OK with it, it doesn't strike me as bad.

But there is some subtlety in "equally qualified". Making one's fellow workers have a nicer time at work should count as a job qualification. So if everything other than their being a Mets fan is equal, and they make your time at work more pleasant, then doesn't that make them more qualified?

Compare this kind of case: You're at a pharmaceutical company. Your company's greatest asset is Dr. Jones, a Nobel laureate in chemistry. So it matters a lot that you keep Dr. Jones happy to retain him. Dr. Jones is a Mets fan. If you hire another Mets fan, Dr. Jones is more likely to stay on. It seems reasonable to hire the Mets fan, even if their other qualifications are slightly lower, as long as there is no legal prohibition on such action. (Of course, if Dr. Jones is a racist, it is wrong to coddle their racist preferences.)

Maybe a problem with hiring the Mets fan in your original case--not the Dr. Jones case--is that while this candidate makes you happier, other candidates' sports team preferences (or lack thereof!) are likely to make your other co-workers happy. And you shouldn't choose yourself over your co-workers. (But what if you do a poll and find that more of your workers are Mets fans? Then you might have some climate issues if you hire too many Mets fans. Perhaps it's not enough of a worry to disprefer Mets fans, but it might be enough of a worry to counteract the preference for Mets fans.)

But this is all hard stuff and I know very little about it. Personally I'd feel yucky if my personal preference played a role in hiring when I don't own the company, and so I'd just toss the coin. But I don't want to say that that's morally required.

Maybe a relevant fact is that once one allows personal preference to play such a role, it's in practice really hard to make sure it is *only* a tiebreaker.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Coming back to your original case, then, it seems that your decision-making pattern could perpetuate an unfair distribution of benefits: you get a benefit from this choice that no one else in the office got.

Here's a different procedure that doesn't seem particularly objectionable. Once it's fully determined that two candidates are a tie, then a current employee who will be working closely with the person hired is selected at random, and is allowed to choose between the two candidates on the grounds of personal preference, as long as these grounds don't violate morality or law in some way (e.g., by perpetuating someone's receiving the short end of the stick, constituting sexual harassment, violating anti-discrimination law, etc.)