Merit and justice: An experimental analysis of attitude to inequality

Aldo Rustichini, Alexer Vostroknutov

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8 Scopus citations

Abstract

Merit and justice play a crucial role in ethical theory and political philosophy. Some theories view justice as allocation according to merit; others view justice as based on criteria of its own, and take merit and justice as two independent values. We study experimentally how these views are perceived. In our experiment subjects played two games (both against the computer): a game of skill and a game of luck. After each game they observed the earnings of all the subjects in the session, and thus the differences in outcomes. Each subject could reduce the winnings of one other person at a cost. The majority of the subjects used the option to subtract. The decision to subtract and the amount subtracted depended on whether the game was one of skill or luck, and on the distance between the earnings of the subject and those of others. Everything else being equal, subjects subtracted more in luck than in skill. In skill game, but not in luck, the subtraction becomes more likely, and the amount larger, as the distance increases. The results show that individuals considered favorable outcomes in luck to be undeserved, and thus felt more justified in subtracting. In the skill game instead, they considered more favorable outcomes (their own as well as others') as signal of ability and perhaps effort, which thus deserved merit; hence, they felt less motivated to subtract. However, a larger size of the unfavorable gap from the others increased the unpleasantness of poor performance, which in turn motivated larger subtraction. In conclusion, merit is attributed if and only if effort or skill significantly affect the outcome. An inequality of outcomes is viewed differently depending on whether merit causes the difference or not. Thus, merit and justice are strongly linked in the human perception of social order.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere114512
JournalPloS one
Volume9
Issue number12
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 9 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
©2014 Rustichini Vostroknutov.

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