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The Notion of Neutrality for Decision Makers

Written by S.O.

Posted on March 11, 2015 at 5:04 pm

Just because some things aren’t fair is no reason to expect unfairness.

Nearly anyone will tell you that finding a way to retain some semblance of neutrality during a conflict is one key to effective leadership, be it in your home, at your office, or in any other situation requiring you to settle disputes.

But finding that fairness ‘sweet spot’ – neutrality, if you will – is one of the most difficult things to uncover; whenever human emotions are involved, there will be a sense that someone is likely to come out on top in the negotiations. Likewise, the ‘loser’ will feel like he or she lost something in the exchange.

As someone expected to solve conflicts in a productive and non-punitive way, you may feel, absent any better solution, going ‘with your gut’ just may be the best way out of this dilemma. You might figure that, heck, you’re a fair person who doesn’t carry your biases on your sleeve. Besides, people have no reason to suspect your decisions are unfair, right?

But that’s where you’d be wrong.

For centuries, philosophy has often been the handmaiden of more predictive, scientific disciplines. However, questions like what is ‘fair’, ‘just’, and ‘impartial’ cannot be answered using the scientific method, and nor can they be found in a complex algorithm or proof. These are questions of value – of what we value. So those types of issues still fall to philosophers to figure out.

Let’s look at what modern philosophers say about fairness and neutrality.


English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill sought to answer the age-old question ‘ What ought we do?’ They answered it, in part, with Utilitarianism, a system that seeks the greatest good for all involved. In regards to making fair decisions, Bentham and Mill might ask, ‘Which decision promotes the greatest amount of happiness among those affected?’

Though a bit dated, Utilitarianism still works quite nicely when making decisions or judgments about larger groups of people (like in an office, across a company, or throughout an industry). Considering, for example, how a new rule might affect how excited employees will be coming to work in the morning is not an unreasonable basis for a decision. However, as Bentham and Mill’s critics pointed out at the time, while happiness certainly is a standard by which to make decisions, it shouldn’t be the only consideration. Do we sacrifice fairness and justice for the sake of happiness?

Further, this approach dissolves the moment we focus in on disagreements between small groups. One reason for this is that the application of a ‘happiness’ principle, if you will, isn’t enough to quiet the loser in the equation. It’s one thing to sacrifice something you love when a large group of people will benefit from that sacrifice. It’s quite another when the greatest amount of happiness only extends to the winner of the disagreement. Similarly, in small-group disagreements, subverting things like fairness and justice for the sake of making the most people happy hits too close to home; nobody likes it when injustice is dangled too closely in front of us.

Rawls’ Theory of Justice

About a century after Bentham and Mill, political philosopher John Rawls developed a theory of justice that sought to eliminate goals such as ‘the greatest amount of happiness’ and replacing it with a system that prized an impartial ‘ignorance’ of the arbitrator. And while this approach clashes with the Utilitarian way of doing things, a greater level of fairness is achieved. In light of fairness and decision-making, let’s look at how Rawls used our shared sense of fairness to achieve justice:

Rawls’ first principle of justice:
• People have the right to enjoy freedoms enjoyed by others in a similar position. Likewise, people are subject to the same rules.

Rawls’ second principle of justice:
• Decisions should first benefit the lesser advantaged, and everyone should have the same level opportunity.

Mind you, Rawls never really intended to have his principles used to decide small disputes. Yet, it is clear that his approach works well where fairness and equality are important.

One huge criticism of Rawls’ system, though, is that it seems to be a bit Pollyannaish about our ability as decision-makers to remove our own advantage (replacing it with some sort of ignorance) from a particular decision. Suspicion creeps in on the part of those with the dispute – suspicion that things are not being handled fairly despite the arbitrator’s claims of impartiality.

Logic and Neutrality

English philosopher Timothy Williamson, who currently holds the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, wrote a fascinating piece a couple years ago in the New York Times about the current limits of logic in decision-making and epistemology (how we know things).

Williamson confronts the ways the neutrality of logic has been undermined by other theories and theorists (like the dialetheists – let’s not even go there), and why he doesn’t think those critiques diminish the practical value of logic in decision-making. The loftier, more cerebral underlining issues with logic still remain – such as upon what we should actually ground our logic so that it’s non-contradictory and comprehensible. But those theoretical concerns do very little to undermine logic’s neutrality-allowing powers in the real world.

In fact, what Williamson demonstrates is that simple logical concepts like non-contradiction (‘A is B’, and ‘A is not B’ cannot both be true) and deducing logical consequences (If he does A, then B will happen) help strengthen logic’s power to help us make the right decisions.

When used in a dispute between impassioned parties, logic lets us be a bit more confident that the final decision actually will be fair. Rather than subjecting the decision to the vagaries of our feeling that we are being impartial (as in Rawls’ case) or that we are measuring our decision based on higher goals like happiness or utility (as in Bentham and Mills’ case), using logic lets us actually demonstrate our fairness.

Sure, other skills and practices – such as empathy, letting both parties say their piece, airing both parties’ concerns regarding possible negative outcomes of your decision – are essential in helping negotiations run smoothly and allowing both parties to feel as though they’ve been heard and have some skin in the game. As leaders, knowing how to communicate expectations and consequences before an action needs to be taken is also important to the overall process.

But using logic when the rubber meets the road – when the time for judgment has come – will help those under your leadership know that the result of that judgment will be fair and reasonable.

Photo by Steve Corey


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