When Fair Isn't Fair: Understanding Choice Reversals Involving Social Preferences
NBER Working Paper No. 25257
In settings with uncertainty, tension exists between ex ante and ex post notions of fairness (e.g., equal opportunity versus equal outcomes). In a laboratory experiment, the most common behavioral pattern is for subjects to select the ex ante fair alternative ex ante, and switch to the ex post fair alternative ex post. One potential explanation embraces consequentialism and construes the reversals as manifestations of time inconsistency. Another abandons consequentialism in favor of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and thereby avoids the implication that revisions imply inconsistency. We test between these explanations by examining contingent planning and the demand for commitment. While the population appears to be heterogeneous, our findings suggest that the most common attitude toward fairness involves a time-consistent preference for applying naive deontological rules.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25257