On the forums for a popular game distribution platform, I suggested that developers receive an additional percentage of sales as an incentive to include certain platform features. Someone replied and asked why the other developers should be punished.

This logic took me by surprise, so I thought I'd come here and see if anyone knows what this reasoning is called. It seems to me that it must be some sort of fallacy or similar, but I'm just a developer :).

I compared the scenario to two employees; one who works 48 hours and gets paid overtime, and one who just works his 40 hours. Is the latter being punished? I don't think so.


p.s. I guessed on the tags, since that's really what I'm asking, "What is this phenomenon"?

  • This seems like an interesting question. I think it hinges on the definition of the word punishment. I could imagine some definitions where the senecio you describe is a punishment. The next question becomes is such a punishment justified. Of course in any kind market situation (which you seem to be involved in) providing incentives is a primary way in which positive results are obtained. If these happen to punish others ( again this depends amount other things on the definition of punishment) this may be allowable ( this of course depend on the theory of punishment one chooses). Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 2:19
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    This is just my guess, but I think the reasoning is: "A and B are not treated equal, therefore either A is being rewarded or B is being punished, it's a matter of perspective, so both are true". Some people take egalitarianism too far, further than fairness and justice. IMHO.
    – Trylks
    Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 7:10
  • I think you nailed it; they're not opposites. But I'm hoping to find some sort of label for this particular logic error. Commented Sep 19, 2013 at 19:31
  • It sounds like a "polarising" error, but not sure if that's an official label...
    – Ryno
    Commented Sep 20, 2013 at 0:16
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    The issue is that the person asking why the other developer should be punished is obscuring the distinction between punishment and not giving people stuff they want when you think it is not reasonable to give them that stuff. Ayn Rand would call this the fallacy of package dealing: aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/package-dealing,_fallacy_of.html
    – alanf
    Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 11:29

5 Answers 5


I'm going to try and answer this "side-on", there are lots of different possible interpretations so I'll try and give a "tour" of them. I will begin with utility, as I think your colleague's claim stems from thinking in these terms.

When talking about anything in terms of utility the same question always rears its head: in the public sphere it arises when people talk of economic models that maximize wealth without regard to human welfare; in medicine it occurs when people discuss the benefits of medical trials vs. the risks involved. The question is "Can we summarise everything that we need to know into a single number, and then use that number to make a decision?"

For the specific case in your question, where it is specifically about (the same) money, it seems completely reasonable to put the punishment and the reward on the same scale. But, if we use a subjective measure of utility, such as happiness, this might be very difficult.

For example, if we associate reward and punishment with some measure of pleasure and pain (as is typical for neuroscience) then it becomes relevant that the physiological pathways involved in learning from reward are separate from those for punishment.. This suggests that rewards and punishments may be very difficult, or perhaps impossible, to put on a single scale. Reward and punishment as understood by neuroscientists are not on the "same axis" and I would expect a neuroscientist to say no to the title question.

But if we make the assumption that it is money that is important, there is still a problem concerning whether the scale it is measured on is "uniform"... For example, if someone has 10,000$ and you take 9,999$ away from them, it is going to have a much bigger impact on their life than giving them 9,999$. A monetary punishment of equal utility to that of the reward would not have the same dollar-value. So, a fictional economist who was simply comparing utility would conclude that a punishment for one is a reward for everyone else, even though they differ in degree. This economist - who works on the principle of only considering objective losses and gains - will not see a qualitative difference between reward and punishment, even though they may differ in quantity.

So, we can safely say that if any difference does exist then it does not lie in the losses or gains. If we stop looking at the consequences of punishment or reward, but look at the reasons for it, we quickly find an answer: Punishment is what you get when break a rule or law, reward is what you get for good things not required by a rule or law.

We find a difference in terms of what is expected of someone in a society - either by individuals or that society at large. It is a normative difference: using this criteria to ask whether something is a punishment or lack of reward depends on not only fairly concrete things like laws but also more tricky things like standards of behaviour, custom and the quirks of human emotion.

It has been my experience that many people reject this kind of distinction due to its subjective, "arbitrary" and culturally variant character. I expect that your colleague would be one of them.

  • I'm not 100% sure I understand it, but this is the most informative answer. The rest of the answers are great too, not really sure how to choose "the" answer, so you win based on length and references :) Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 13:52
  • @ScottBeeson I find the idea of accepting one, and only one, answer on a philosophy site counter-intuitive. If you have any questions you think I can answer, do ask.
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 14:10
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    @ScottBeeson "maximise" isn't a typo where I come from ;)
    – Lucas
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 14:14
  • Hey blame Chrome :) Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 18:17

I think this is called "Whingeing".

If the premise is that workers currently earn x amount (all the same) but there is a suggestion that working more hours is credited with a reward of more pay ..

Your 40-hour person does not work extra hours, and is earning the same as before the suggestion. They are no better or worse off. They are neither being punished nor rewarded.

Your 48-hour person is now earning more. Although they're working the same amount as they were before (ie, they were and are workign 48 hours), they're doing more work than the 40-hour person, giving moral substance as to why they're now earning more. Only this person's circumstances have changed. This is not relevant to the 40-hour person's situation.

Question : Why should the developers who don't provide forum certain platform features receive no extra reward ? Answer : Because they haven't provided certain planform features, so there is no change in their circumstances.


There is a report (including video footage) of a monkey who would be rewarded with pieces of cucumber for successfully completing tasks. The monkey was satisfied with the reward, until he found out that another monkey was rewarded with grapes for the same task. Immediately the monkey stopped doing the exercise and angrily threw back the last piece of cucumber.

I think it is safe to say that we put our rewards in perspective of what others get for the same effort. Getting a lesser reward may feel like a punishment or at least be considered unjust. The developers who don't include the platform features may feel that they get rewarded less for approximately the same effort.

The video of the monkeys: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL45pVdsRvE

  • 2
    Fascinating video. But the irony in your last sentence is that if it were "approximately the same work", meaning a very trivial task to add the features and thus get the extra reward, why not do it? If the monkeys received grapes for giving the scientist red rocks, versus cucumbers for green rocks, don't you think they would have figured it out and both given red rocks? Commented Sep 20, 2013 at 16:02
  • I think the point in this case is that the first monkey was never given any reward other than cucumbers.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Sep 28, 2013 at 8:50

Here are two different situations that involve different ways of thinking about an incentive:

Situation 1.) There is an automatic system that rewards people for high performance. So it should be perfectly objective what the reward is, and what the conditions for getting the reward is, and everyone who meets those conditions gets the reward.

Situation 2.) There are a group of people working, one of whom does a very good job. The owner of the company just happens to notice and gives that worker a reward.

Situation 2 doesn't strike me as terribly wicked or unjust--the owner can spend his money however he wants. However, obviously it is unfair to other workers who may have worked just as hard, or done just as well in the past when the boss didn't notice. That's not immoral, but it is bad leadership, since it destroys morale.

I think it would be harder to say that something was wrong with the first situation. Although, maybe here is what people are thinking: The owner of the company ought to pay the employees what they earn for doing their job--offering them a little more money for much more work would be encouraging the workers to work more than they should because they need the money. Some people may view that as encouraging the workers to self-exploitation. I don't find that argument persuasive, but I could imagine someone from a country like Germany or France with a strong set of labor laws might feel differently.


Well let me present another idea that people think too much in absolutes. If you are not right, you must be wrong. If its not black, it must be white. Logically we know that if not black, it could be any other color, including white. Incentive is just that, reward for doing more, giving more and lack of it is not punishment, its just the norm unless it was withheld when earned, in which case it would be punishment. Sometimes people's sense of entitlement overrides their common sense that you can't have something if you didn't earn it, no matter how much you hate that others got it.

Unfortunately there is no specific term that I am aware governs this specific principle; however, it would fit within a modern fringe of the extended relational models theory (Fiske, 1991), specifically the 4th fundamental and distinct moral motives of proportionality - "the motive for rewards and punishments to be proportionate to merit, benefits to be calibrated to contributions, and judgments to be based on a utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits". I hope that helps at least. If I find a more specific label, I will let you know.

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