One day you are called from your morning coffee and chair by the sounds of a dispute coming from the school yard. In the center of the play area, three children are arguing loudly over a rudely carved wooden flute. Each is quite passionate in asserting that, while the others have compelling arguments, the flute should rightfully go to them as their claim on it is the strongest. You want to be fair so you conduct an extensive interview with each and the following story comes out. None of the children disagree about these facts, only their relevance.

The first child is from a poor family (henceforth ‘the poor kid’). They don’t have much in the way of possessions so they have become used to improvising toys. One such favorite was a stick that they found on their distant grandparent’s property. The poor kid was usually to be found swinging it around and playing swashbuckler on the playground equipment during recess. The second child (‘the rich kid’) finds this most annoying and prefers not to use the areas where the poor kid is playing as a result.

Last week the poor kid comes in to school without lunch. They’re looking really hungry so the rich kid offers to trade a spare sandwich for the stick that has been annoying them. The poor kid agrees and the traded sandwich makes for a very satisfying lunch. The third child (‘the crafty kid’) happens to be sitting nearby and takes a liking to the stick. They ask the rich kid if they can use the stick to help with a personal project. The rich kid is in a good mood and hands it over.

In the intervening week, the crafty kid carves the stick into a rough flute. It is rudimentary to be sure but functional. Today, the crafty kid brought the flute in to school, the other two saw it in the school yard, and the fight broke out.

If the rich kid gets it, they will play it on and off for a few days (they are the only one of the trio that knows how to play) and then it will end up in their locker with the rest of their toys (because they don’t like to share what’s theirs). If the crafty kid gets it, they will examine it for a while to take notes about the carving process and then throw it to their dog to chew up or throw it out (like many artists, they hate to see their practice pieces). If the poor kid gets it, they will use it like they always did and go back to swashbuckling (in the week since giving it up, this kid couldn’t find a suitable replacement and misses playing their favorite games).

You’re an impartial observer. You don’t owe these kids anything and never expect them to be of any use to you in the future. At this moment, you’re more concerned about making the headache go away but you do want to be fair.

Alternatively, you know the rich kid will say good things to their parents, who have influence on the school board, the poor kid is your cousin, and the crafty kid lent you a full range of tools last month when you needed to do some emergency classroom repair.

What do you do and who has the best claim? Do you expect other observers to agree with your assessment? In a perfect world would you expect to generate objective agreement or is this situation truly pathological?

Amartya Sen created this example to illustrate how different moral frameworks truly generate different answers even in non-extreme situations. I consider this an excellent thought experiment for understanding how complicated justice can be and how mutually contradictory our current systems are.

Wait, somebody thinks it isn’t morally the crafty kid’s?

Yeah I kinda want to form communities where people who don’t think the crafty kid has the best claim can’t join and only live in them. Just my gut reaction here.

That’s a really interesting though experiment.

I’m not sure if the stick is the rich or the crafty kids’, though, because:

They ask the rich kid if they can use the stick to help with a personal project. The rich kid is in a good mood and hands it over.

Was that a transfer of ownership or a lending? If somebody asks me if they can use something of mine (and I feel it was clearly the rich kid’s before the project) for a crafts project, whether or not it becomes “theirs” is very very fluent – like, if somebody asks if they can use one of my chairs for a project, I would be very disappointed if I got anything but a useful chair back – though possibly modified/decorated – and would not have any implied change of ownership. If somebody asked if they could use my tools in a project, I would not expect to get any screws/nails back.

Counterpoint: If it was still just a stick, I’m pretty sure the rich kid wouldn’t care about getting it back at all. He wants it because the crafty kid turned it in to something cool.

Of course, you could let the crafty kid study it and then hand it off to the rich kid. The crafty kid explicitly just wants to study it for a bit before parting with it…

I actually don’t really care about neither the crafty nor the rich kids’ opinions, in so far that they are in agreement about the facts of whether it was a transfer of ownership or not.

If it turns out that they do agree about the wording but not about whether it was a transfer of ownership (That is, “Can I use” was the explicit wording, not “can I borrow” or “can I have” and they disagree about the meaning) then yeah I’d give it to the crafty kid, probably on the understanding that the crafty kid owes the rich kid a stick but not a stick that he has transformed into a flute.

But if it was explicitly a loan, then it’s still the rich kid’s stick no matter how amazingly transformative the crafty kid has been.

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