Philosophical Notes: Towards a fairer share of dishwashing

ONE OF my college house-mates, Greg, use to refuse to divide anything by lot. He objected that this procedure discriminates against what he called "the unlucky people". Steadfast randomisers reply to this that "unlucky" fails to select a natural class of people. The fact that someone is Indian today is a good enough reason to believe he will also be Indian tomorrow. But being unlucky today provides no grounds for predicting being unlucky tomorrow.

I had the good fortune of marrying an acquaintance of the said college housemate. My wife and I moved into a cheap flat and we agreed to transcend gender-based division of labour. This made dishwashing a somewhat delicate issue. Initially we tried team dishwashing. But two people cannot wash much quicker than one. Then we tried rotating the chore between us. But that raised the suspicion of "insensitive dish-dirtying" on one's days off. So, dismissing Greg's reservations, we changed to a policy of determining who would be the night's dishwasher by flipping a coin after dinner.

At first, our chancy arrangement created an exciting casino-night atmosphere. But then I lost five times in a row. I kept thinking about the coin in the opening scene of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It lands heads down for 179 consecutive tosses. For a while I did have the consoling thought that the law of averages would ensure that everything would even out in the long run. But then I realised that this thought was simply an instance of the gambler's fallacy. If a coin lands heads on five consecutive tosses, those devotees of the gambler's fallacy will bet on tails. They think that the law of averages works by compensation. But the law of averages actually works by brute force. A lop-sided run of five heads disturbs the ratio of heads to tails over the short run. But the five-toss streak has steadily less impact on the 1:1 ratio over the long run. This does not mean the five-heads surplus disappears; it is merely dwarfed into statistical insignificance by the growing number of coin tosses.

Luck has no memory. The law of averages does not try to make up for past imbalances. So the bottom line was that my five nights' worth of dishes were a dead loss! Just processes do not guarantee just outcomes. Here is a dishwashing scheme that does, in fact, guarantee a just outcome because it does work by compensation. Instead of flipping a coin, you choose from a deck of cards. If the card is red, my wife washes. If the card is black, I wash. Since the card is not returned to the deck, the washer has a lower chance of being selected on the next round. Moreover both parties are guaranteed to wash an equal number of times. Cards are fairer than coins. Coins may well provide a fair process but they fail to ensure a fair result.

The belief that just processes ensure just results is important to those political philosophers who reject the principle that the end justifies the means. For instance, in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick uses the principle to defend the unfettered accumulation of wealth by capitalists. As long as each small transaction is fair, then the cumulative redistribution of wealth will be fair: i.e. the transfer of money from the many poor to the few rich.

Perhaps Robert Nozick would try to smooth troubled waters with the observation that people do tend to acquiesce to the results of processes they perceive to be fair. Agreed, but there are other explanations. For the sake of domestic tranquillity, I might agree to abide by the outcome of some process - regardless of whether it is fair. But that means that it is my consent which obliges me to accept the outcome, rather than the justice of the actual procedure. The means do not justify the end.

Roy Sorensen is the author of `Thought Experiments' (Oxford University Press, pounds 16.99)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk