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February 14, 2006

Housework: Reflective equilibrium for slobs

I'm not an authority on housework. Don't do much, don't discuss it much. But now there's blood in the dishwater and I can't resist weighing in.

I agree with Scott: Bourgeois standards of neatness are a needless burden, especially on women. All other things being equal, almost everyone would prefer a cleaner environment. The question is where the point of diminishing returns falls for you. I want a clean kitchen and a clean bathroom and enough dusting to keep the books and the electronics in good shape. Anything beyond that isn't worth it for me.

The real problem is that people who are willing to work for neatness stake out the moral high ground. For some reason, the neatest person in the household generally assumes that he or she has the right to set the prevailing standard of cleanliness for the household. In equal relationships, the work gets split 50/50, in unequal relationships someone gets stuck with the lion's share.

The real question is how many hours of work should be up for sharing. To me, the fair thing to set the household standard according to the most relaxed partner's considered judgement. If they're honest, even big slobs will agree that there's some standard that's worth working for, even if they're tempted to fall short from weakness of will. The household cleanliness standard should be set according to this equilibrium point.

If you embrace a goal, it's not so bad to be gently reminded to uphold your end of the bargain. It feels more like nagging when someone is exhorting you to uphold a standard you never endorsed in the first place.

There's nothing stopping the neater person from choosing to do more chores because the marginal effort is worth it to them. That is a choice, not a categorical imperative on their part. Neat people get upset because they see slackers as freeriders. In fact, most slackers aren't getting that much of a free ride because the extra work is above their threshold. If they got more out of cleanliness, they'd be willing to put more into cleanliness. If you're a slacker, maybe it's slightly nicer for you to live in a super-clean house, but not that much nicer.

If the slacker determined her equillibrium point honestly, then freeriding is minimized--the additional work the neat person is doing is mostly for the neat person's own benefit. As long as the slacker does her share of the work she honestly thinks needs to be done, she doesn't have a moral obligation to the neatnik to invest more of her free time dusting lampshades if she'd rather be reading the paper.


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Not to mention the direct health risks of many household chemicals - often not substances you really want to be breathing in or getting on your skin or eyes. Obviously yes a really dirty house could be a health hazard, but most of us don't live in such filthy conditions as to be harmful to our health, and we could be doing more harm than good by excessive cleaning.

I have severe allergies since childhood when a public health nurse inspected our home for dust with a white glove. I am allergic to dust and cat dander. Now that I'm in a relationship with someone who doesn't use alcohol, drugs or smoke I have difficulties with their tolerance to clutter, dirt and dust. Having had parents that were both employed we had learned to cooperate to get the cleaning done on weekends. Seems my partner's culture allowed his mother to clean for everyone and now he doesn't understand my position. Seems like codependancy issues around any person's need for a clean home vs. a dysfunctional home

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