Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

A Questionnaire-Experimental Study of Equity Evaluations over Time

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

A Questionnaire-Experimental Study of Equity Evaluations over Time

Article excerpt

Introduction

Empirical social choice is a relatively new area within the theory of collective decisions. As far as the theory and empirical investigation of voting behaviour is concerned, a broad overview has recently been published in a book by Regenwetter et al. (2006). As far as the empirical analysis of distributive issues is concerned, apart from two longer surveys by Gaertner (2007, 2009), a book is not yet available. Yaari and Bar-Hillel(1984) were probably the first to study the concept of distributive justice empirically. What the authors did was to elicit judgments of justice to various hypothetical questions that they gave to applicants for admission to Hebrew University. More concretely, roughly equal numbers of young men and women were confronted with hypothetical distribution problems that they were asked to "solve justly" (Bar-Hillel& Yaari 1993:59). The authors emphasize that the focus of their research was the ethical notions in people's minds, not their actual behaviour, recognizing that the actual behaviour "is inevitably contaminated by political, strategic, and other considerations"(1993:59). They add that "it is people's expressed sentiments (namely what they say ought to be done) rather than their revealed ones (namely that they actually do) that primarily guides the search for normative theory of justice, as well as the rhetoric of public debate on issues of distributive justice.

The general public definitely has an opinion on issues of distributive justice. This view may at times be quite vague and may depend on the particular context into which the problem is embedded. As a most recent example, take the public discussion (or should we say uproar?) in relation to bonuses and pension claims of various bank managers in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. So opinions on equity exist and should be taken into consideration in a political democracy. Schokkaert (1999) argues that if normative economics wants its analysis to have real influence on the decisions taken within a political system, it has to consider the opinions and preferences of its citizens. If the political sphere neglects the latter, public support for a particular distributive policy and its implementation are doubtful. Empirical research on the ethical notions in people's minds may therefore be helpful.

In their empirical investigation Bar-Hillel and Yaari studied situations where students were asked to divide a bundle of goods between two persons in order for the division to be just. The division problem was embedded in different contexts, viz. a context of needs, a context of tastes and a context where beliefs mattered. The utility functions behind the two recipients of the goods were designed in such a way that numerically, they were exactly the same in all three contexts. However, the students' evaluations for the three contexts differed sharply. In the case of needs, a maximin-oriented decision was clearly dominant, in the case where tastes were the predominant feature, a utilitarian-type decision was chosen most frequently, in the case of beliefs a large group of students favoured the equal-split solution. These findings provide strong support for the position that the consideration of vectors or numbers of individual utilities alone is by no means sufficient in order to analyze a distribution problem adequately. Clearly, the two authors' results can be seen as an empirically substantiated argument against welfarism (see e.g. Sen 1979), a position which claims that what counts when one evaluates social states is the information on individual utilities only.

Bar-Hillel and Yaari replicated their experiments at several instances both in Israel and the United States during the years 1978-1981. They assert that the response patterns of these investigations were very similar to those of the applicants to Hebrew University. So for the time period given and for the student samples available to the two authors, a certain kind of "reflective equilibrium" (Rawls 1971) was, perhaps, reached. …

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