Asymmetric justice occurs when punishment for failures is proportionally greater than rewards for equal-magnitude successes (or vice-versa). The term was first coined by Zvi.
Asymmetric justice results in the “IBM option,” where employees will prefer low-risk but low-upside moves. In other words, risk aversion.
Similarly, in the opticratic world of scientific peer review, Crispy Chicken writes:
Most science is bad, not actively lying. The reason why it’s “bad” is because the authors present their data in a way to make their results appealing, but this kind of presentation goal specifically selects against giving reviewers anything to sink their teeth into. Most reviews are pretty negative—but without concrete things to be negative about, the person actually deciding whether the paper gets in (who is not a reviewer, by the way) can’t fairly pay them much heed.
Some onlookers believe that institutions today are broadly risk-averse as a result of functional asymmetric justice stemming from modern litigation practices.
N.N.T. takes the opposite tack, emphasizing a type of asymmetric justice in which catastrophic failures in the wake of tail risks are excused, or go unpunished, because they were “unforseeable” or “acts of God.” Financial bail-outs, for instance, effectively subsidize riskier behavior by raising the floor of possible disaster. Similarly, a short-termist approach to reward in many corporate settings leads to functional asymmetric justice whereby an executive leaps from company to company, making short-term, CV-boosting profits at tremendous (as-of-yet hidden) long-term cost to the org. The delayed effects of his poor stewardship allow him to stay ahead of the problems his short-termist optimizing causes, receiving better and better pay (and prestige) as he goes.
Asymmetric justice is related to the Knobe Effect, whereby more intentionality is attributed to individuals whose actions have negative consequences, than those whose actions have positive ones:
In a study published in 2003, Knobe presented passers-by in a Manhattan park with the following scenario. The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.
Did the CEO intentionally harm the environment? The vast majority of people Knobe quizzed—82 per cent—said he did. But what if the scenario is changed such that the word ‘harm’ is replaced with ‘help’? In this case the CEO doesn’t care about helping the environment, and still just wants to make a profit—and his actions result in both outcomes. Now faced with the question ‘Did the CEO intentionally help the environment?’, just 23 per cent of Knobe’s participants said ‘yes’ (Knobe, 2003a).