Posted by: HAT | January 9, 2015

Facing Facts – Household Division of Labor

woman ironing by an open window with the words Hoffman's Stärke

Being nice about doing what may simply make sense

Hi, Gang!

Here is a fact about the division of labor. If we take income as a measure of the value of time, and if two people in a household have some kind of income, and person A’s income is 1/40th of person B’s income, then person A’s time is 1/40th as valuable as person B’s time. An implication of this line of thinking is that, assuming my arithmetic is correct (not always a safe assumption), if some task, like a household task, would divert person B from their income-earning activities for 10 minutes, it would be more economically rational (from the household perspective) for person A to do it, even if it would divert person A from their income-earning activities for 6 ½ hours.

Check my logic, but I think this means something further. I think it means that if person A does various tasks that reduce person B’s need to shift time away from income-earning activities, it does not qualify as “being nice.” Even if person A is well-disposed and cheerful about doing the tasks, the fact that doing them is economically rational behavior vitiates any attribution of “niceness.” Person A can be “nice about it,” or not, but in the end, person A is not effectively in a position to be “nice,” only in a position to be reasonable. Refusing to do the tasks wouldn’t be “not nice,” it would just be idiotic. Person B might, however, be in a position to be nice. Say person B donates 10 minutes of their time to enable person A to spend some hours on some activity, that could qualify as “nice,” if by “nice” we understand “altruistic.” As well as extravagant, but that’s a different story. The point is that the economic inequality creates a related ethical inequality.

Contemplating this (which I had time to do while having the car serviced) has given me new insight into Jesus’ command to go the extra mile and give the extortioner the shirt off your back. If we just do what we must do, what’s required by simple rationality, there’s neither virtue nor freedom in it. But where coercion – even the coercion of what just makes sense – stops, at that point freedom, and virtue along with it, might be able to begin.


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