May 15, 2003

Justice as Fairness

Pseudonymous political scientist, John Lemon has an account of an interesting thought experiment that he uses to disconcert his students (links bloggered; it’s not far down). He asks how many in the class support progressive redistribution. About half of the students stand up; he then tells them that he’s talking about redistribution of grades rather than money, and wants to know whether they’d like him to “tax” the grades of the A students so as to bump up the marks of students below the median. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the students sit down. It’s a discomfiting little thought experiment for people like me who support progressive taxation, but allot grades according to a rather different concept of fairness.

Another pseudonymous pol-sci professor takes issue; he offers a somewhat different thought experiment in the comments to Lemon’s post. He suggests that students should be told that if their parents earned a GPA above 3.5, they will be given an A; but if their parents didn’t go to college, they will be flunked. Here, he’s appealing to a different critique of the “fairness” of grading, something much closer to the logic of affirmative action.

I frankly don’t feel competent to comment on the issues involved here; vaguely remembered bits and pieces of Spheres of Justice do not a political theorist make. But it’s an interesting argument - and worth flagging, I think, for those more expert than I in the underlying issues and distinctions.

Update: Daniel Davies comes to the rescue of worried lefties such as meself.

Posted by Henry at May 15, 2003 10:15 PM | TrackBack

Heh. It’s only an interesting argument if you believe that money is basically a measure of personal worth, which is why I’m viewing its progress across the Web with interest …

Posted by: dsquared at May 16, 2003 06:53 AM

I had second thoughts; it’s an interesting (although trick) argument and I wrote something on my own website about it.

Posted by: dsquared at May 16, 2003 07:51 AM

Grades aren’t a reward, or an exchange, they are the result of a measurement. One can’t re-distribute grades without invalidating their whole purpose.

Lemon should be ashamed of himself, for using such a bogus ‘example’ to make his point. One suspects that he is either a very poor teacher or he is hoping that the students will notice the distinction and call him on it. (And thus kick off an intesting discussion….)

Posted by: John Knoeller at May 16, 2003 10:41 PM

Hmm. I do not really see a problem with (or the point of, for that matter) grade redistribution as long as it’s done uniformly throughout the country. All it will do is compress the scale (which may lead to granularity problems, but they are fixable by going to a more fine-grained scale). But the relative order of grades seems to be preserved, so no student is hurt. On the other hand, students who might have failed can now get a passing grade (since apparently that boundary isn’t adjusted). A win-win situation from the students’ perspective.

There is only a problem if a class is singled out for “grade redistribution” and therefore disadvantaged compared to other classes or schools.

Posted by: Reimer Behrends at May 19, 2003 11:00 AM
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