A philosophical inquiry into the fairness of impersonal, imperfect procedures.

Or something like that.  

I take it that there are impersonal and imperfect procedures all around us, including all sorts of stuff going on now: hiring, admissions and so on.  But to take it away from any immediate concerns for most of us, let’s suppose you have responsibility for distributing the ballots in a very important faculty election and adding up the results as they come in.  And let’s focus on cases where the alleged mistakes are really fairly egregious. 

So suppose you put the ballots  in the university mail and, lo and behold, the day after the results are finally added up, a small group of faculty come to you and say that they didn’t receive the ballots and they think it was due to the incompetence of a staff person, who has failed to distribute mail correctly  in their department before.  And let’s suppose that  indeed not all the ballots that were put in the mail have  come back. 

What should you say and do?  Take them at their word  and add in the ballots?  Initiate an investigation?  Or tell them that the institution followed proper  procedure  and that’s what you are responsible for.

You can probably easily see how very different situations can have the same structure.  TA grading, journal refereeing, committee decisions about hiring and on and on are all fallible.  And some can have instances of engregious mistakes – ballots not distributed, a TA who just screwed up on some of the grading.  Or it might be the lab processing results from yearly physical exams or looking at potentially important evidence in a crime. 

Let’s suppose the alleged errors  are not really massive enough to invalidate the  whole procedure.  The labs  mess  up in only a few instances, the TAs are generally quite reliable, etc.  The question, then, is:  in such cases,  do the people in charge have any obligation to pay attention to alleged cases of egregious errors?

Why ask this question?  Well, one reason is that  answers to such questions might separate those  of us  attracted to a “care ethics” from others.  And another reason is that there may be political dimensions to such situations that are worth noting. 

One is that very often those pointing out egregious errors may be the supposed victims.  Does their first  person perspective lessen the  value of their claims?  Are they to be thought suspiciously self-serving? 

Futher, are there groups more apt to be victims of egregious errors?  Is a student’s ethnic background revealed in a choice of unfamiliar examples more likely to trigger a “kiss this off” reaction?  Might the fact  that  a sample is supposed to come from an alleged rape case mean the evidence is more or less likely to be treated in the best professional fashion?

So I’m not a moral philosopher, and perhaps I should start off by re-reading Rawls, whom I haven’t thought of for decades.  But maybe enough has been said to ask this question:  Are those implementing an impersonal but imperfect procedure under any obligation to consider reasonable allegations of egregious errors? 

If you can, please do give us some indication of why you have selected the answer you have.

And, to be perfectly up front:  I’m concerned that pleas on behalf of women in academia may be floundering in part because of the stress put at times on impersonal procedures.  Some procedures, of course, may be revealed as discriminatory at their foundation.  But others might be so only in their execution.  If we think impersonal procedures are fair and that claims about alleged abuses are inclined to be self-serving, then we may be perpectuating inequalities  despite what we intend.

An implication might be that those implementing such procedures should check to make sure that the disadvantaged  are in fact not subject to egregious errors.  I suspect this will look like suspicious “special pleading.”

Enough!  What do you think?

9 thoughts on “A philosophical inquiry into the fairness of impersonal, imperfect procedures.

  1. I said yes. Just talking about the ballots’ case, my reasoning is pretty straightforward. The first question is whether to believe them that they never got the ballot, and I see no reason not to. The more important question, is whether one has a responsibility to take part in helping them with their grievance. Essentially, when people take a “that’s not my department” approach, many problems end up being in nobody’s department simply because nobody wants to do something they could possibly not have to do. So I tend to think the opposite approach is the way to go. And I think it justifies thinking of it as an obligation, since if you’re not obligated in such a case who would be.

  2. i said “no” (and looking at the results, this will probably make me unpopular…)

    my reason: i absolutely think that “impersonal procedures” contribute to problematic errors, but i think that a real solution can only be sought once those procedures are eliminated. and i don’t really believe in error; i think it is far too easy to see an accident or an error when, in fact, you are looking at a pattern of systematic abuse/problems/etc. so, you need to get at the root of the issue, and the root is often very personal…

  3. Wow, I’m really surprised at the reinforcement of academic hierarchy that’s going on in this post. Only TAs and “incompetent staff people” make mistakes? Of course tenured faculty never screw up!

  4. Michelle, nice try, but you were too quick to judge.

    There are implications of hierarchy built in the discussion, but that’s because the question is about being in a position in which one is in charge of – or implementing – a process. The TA example refers to a very standard example when professors are implementing a procedure.

    The journal editor example is about faculty messing up referee reports, and the hiring committees are composed of faculty generally. There is explicit recognition that people at various levels can produce egregious errors.

    Further, notice that the ballot example is not about a staff person screwing up; it is about faculty claiming the staff person screwed up. In my experience, “the staff screwed up” is for professors very like “the dog chewed up my homework” is for school kids.

    [For undergraduates, the comparable excuse seems to me to be “the computer broke down,” though alarmingly “a grandparent died” is frequent enough. I have considered warning my Intro classes that there seems to be some odd connection between having me as a teacher and grandparents keeling over.]

  5. RA, you had two very similar comments in the spam box. I assume you don’t mind my pulling one out, but do let me know if you do.

    I think you’ve taken a theoretical approach to the question; I’ll have to think about that, but I’m concerned that human beings may be stuck with fallible procedures we do have to implement.

    If the issue were a practical one – perhaps you are paid to manage a lab testing medical samples and you know one’s person’s work onone afternoon was done too quickly to be up to the normal standards. So the results in 5 out of the hundreds the lab processes that day are going to be unreliable. Do you say “Well, my job is to distribute samples and see that the results are mailed back; I don’t do quality control.”

  6. jj, yes. sorry, it didn’t post the first time and i hit the button again.

    yes, i do tend to look at things theoretically.

    i think there is some sort of important distinction that needs to be made between “scientific processes” and “human processes.” (and, yes, i realize trying to draw that line will be difficult).

    i think when the issue at stake involves people in a direct way– not just data, not just theoretical, not just lab procedures or medical testing– that “impersonal procedures” should be avoided.

    for me this is a question of politics and there is something very dangerous about impersonal procedures. (and now my mind is wandering towards the Milgram experiment…) hum…

  7. RA, you’re pointing out that the situation is harder to describe than I thought. Certainly, the lottery makes it clear that we don’t want all impersonal procedures. It’s another question – and related to the one I’m trying to ask – whether someone who is picked by the lottery is treated unfairly. For example, if two people buy tickets in some state lottery and one will $1 million, while the other gets nothing, I’m not sure it is right to say that second was treated unfairly.

    So I’m thinking of impersonal procedures as one’s that are not supposed to be sensitive to irrelevant features. For example, national voting procedures tend to be impersonal in that everyone’s vote counts as the same, at least we’d like to think. And lots of women have pushed for anonymous refereeing on the grounds that the gender of an author is irrelevant to philosophical quality. We take tests in a lot of situations where almost nothing about us is known to those involved in grading,

    So some of these procedures are deeply imbedded in our practices, and we cannot simply discard them. The practical moral question arises: what should those in charge do if there have some reason to think someone has been dealt with badly?

    Now, I’m beginning to think we may have made some faulty assumptions when we opted for anonymous refereeing. It may be quite wrong to think that the refereeing isn’t influenced by at least some consequences of a person’s gender. One way to deal with that would be to try to pay attention to complaints and not just dismiss them by appealing to the impersonal procedure.

    But I think I’m just repeating myself…sorry!

  8. yes it is complicated. and i think we have different issues in mind. using examples from science (lab testing) or linked to math-statistics (the lottery, not the one i was mentioning) gets away from the issues that i see as issues. fine, use impersonal procedures for impersonal procedures. the problem, for me, comes in using them in an “important” moral situation or where historical or political wrongs need to be avoided or actively addressed.

    when it comes to grading, i think gender is fairly easy to read. at least as long as we’re talking about writing and not bubble-fill in sorts of tests.

    and perhaps the “gender of an author is irrelevant to philosophical quality” but i would say it is relevant to lots of other questions-issues.

    sorry, i haven’t had time to really sort this out, but i think that the appeal to “impersonal procedures” is very rarely the correct answer. i think the appeal of it as a science-like solution– one which has embedded itself quite well into other institutional settings, including academia– allows us to proceed as certain in uncertain situations.

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