The person with the highest standards should not automatically be awarded the moral high ground

A piece entitled You’re Dividing Chores Wrong by Emily Oster argues that chores between spouses should be divided based upon increased marginal cost. It’s an interesting argument, but the part that I found most compelling was her comments about loading the dishwasher:

Before my daughter was born, I both cooked and did the dishes. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t take too much time, and honestly I was a lot better at both than my husband. His cooking repertoire extended only to eggs and chili, and when I left him in charge of the dishwasher, I’d often find he had run it “full” with one pot and eight forks.

While I have no doubt about Oster’s skill when it comes to cooking and washing dishes, the problem is not her ability to complete household chores but her assumption of the moral high ground when it comes to chores like loading the dishwasher.

As inefficient as her husband may be at loading the dishwasher, her “one pot and eight forks” example is obviously an exaggeration. Nevertheless, why does Oster care if her husband fails to run a full load of dishes? While her standards of a full load may differ from that of her husband’s, this does not necessarily make his standards unacceptable or wrong.

Perhaps her husband is believes in applying the greatest amount of mental and physical effort to the tasks most important in life. Maybe his unwillingness to fill the dishwasher is the result of his desire to recapture precious minutes of the day in order to play with his kids, advance his career, or improve his  exercise regime.

Maybe he knows that the dishwasher is more likely to be emptied sooner if not completely filled.

Or maybe her husband simply doesn’t care that much about the dishwasher.

For reasons that I fail to understand, it is often assumed that the person with the highest standards for any given task assumes the moral authority over that task, but this is not necessarily true.

My wife, for example, does not like it when I put away dishes that are not bone dry. I argue that the dishes can dry nearly as well in the cupboard as they can on the drying rack, and a few drops of leftover moisture in a cup or bowl won’t hurt anyone. My priority is to put the dishes away as soon as possible, because it’s clutter and disorder that I abhor most, but because her standards of dryness exceed mine, her position inherently holds greater weight.

We encounter a similar discrepancy when it comes to the laundry. If left up to me, we would be washing enormous loads of clothing and separating colors to a lesser degree than she, and when I am washing my own clothing, this is what I do. But if the laundry load also contains my wife’s clothing or even the children’s clothing, I adhere to her standards. Smaller loads and a greater separation of darks from the very darks.

Once again, my method of washing is perfectly acceptable and practiced by millions of people around the world, but because Elysha’s standards are higher than mine, her standards prevail.

This principle applies to activities across the spectrum. The person with the lowest speed limit tolerance inherently sets the speed at which a vehicle should be moving. The person with the highest cleanliness standards typically dictates what a particular room will look like. If there is a spouse who believes that the bed should be made every day, the bed is usually made, even if the other spouse believes it to be a waste of time. 

In this world where highest standards take precedent and those who possess them assume greater moral authority, the people who tend to suffer are the corner-cutters, the short-cutters, the devotees of efficiency and the big picture thinkers. These people’s opinion and beliefs tend to take a back seat to the rule followers and detail-oriented individuals who dominate so much of society.

It’s not right.

Disciples of efficiency, productivity and speed must take a stand against the tyranny of unnecessarily high standards and pointless detail. We must insist that our half-filled dishwashers deserve the same amount of respect as the full dishwasher. We must fight for our principles and our priorities in the face of never-ending rules and overly specific expectations that only seek to slow us down, stifle our productivity and trap us in a miasma of unneeded perfection.

Are you with me?