The Good, the Fair, and the Right

Posted on December 14th, 2012 by Viveca in New York Stories

Sometimes doing what’s fair doesn’t result in doing good. Smart people analyze how this counter-intuitive truth affects big issues. James Surowiecki discusses it in the context of the Eurozone crisis (The Fairness Trap from The New Yorker, June 4, 2012), and Malcom Gladwell raises it with regards to solving homelessness (Million-Dollar Murray, also from The New Yorker, February 13, 2006). Those big questions are out of my small ken, but I do try to do the right thing in my little world, and  sometimes it’s hard to know what that is.

At home I’m too lazy to do my hair, but when I work out at Crunch, I take advantage of the locker room blow dryers. There are two, on opposite sides of cubbies with stools and mirrors, so that two women can dry their hair at the same time. When nobody else is using the blow dryers, I stand between the cubbies and use both hair dryers at the same time.

When I first realized I could reach two hair dryers at once, I felt guilty, even though I couldn’t pinpoint anything I was doing wrong. Every time I double fisted the dryers, I had the same internal dual monolog, with one strand reasoning that it took exactly the same amount of energy to use two dryers for half the time as one dryer for twice the time and the other strand reassuring myself that of course I would give up the other dryer if anyone else came over to use it.

In economics classes, folk say that when the lines cross, something interesting happens. When my two internal monolog threads crossed, though, fair did not cross good. I realized that if another woman came and I handed her one of the dryers, not only would I take longer to finish drying my hair, which seemed a perfectly reasonable sacrifice to share nicely with a stranger, but that sharing wouldn’t offer her any advantage either!

In the real world, of course, maybe she only wants to dry her bangs or one of us has super thick hair, but in hypothetical world, where we each have identical hair and identical hair-drying goals, the right thing to do is to keep both dryers! Think about it: In scenario one, aka The Fair Way, we each use one dryer for, say six minutes. In scenario two, aka The Good Way, I use both dryers for three minutes, and then she uses both dryers for three minutes. The energy consumption is the same, she finishes as scheduled, and I finish earlier. Net gain!

And yet, even as the dryer heated my brain, I knew I couldn’t do it. If a wet-haired stranger approached, I wouldn’t be able to not hand her a hair dryer. Being fair shouldn’t be more important than doing good, but it’s harder to be the good guy than the fair one.

To make sure, I tried to think about it from the other side: what if I walked up while someone else was using both dryers? Yup, I would be shocked and offended if she didn’t offer me a dryer, but once she did, it would be easy to say, “No, you finish up, and then I’ll take them both when you’re done.”

It’s easy to be gracious when you have nothing to lose. It’s harder to figure out what to do when what’s fair isn’t what’s fair and you just want to do right.

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