Fairness – we're wired for it
The debate over what’s fair isn’t just political rhetoric. It defines not only our individual interactions but also the very fabric of society.
Friday Harbor, Wash.
The word "fairness" seems to be everywhere in our political dialogue these days.Skip to next paragraph
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Is it fair for Wall Street bankers who were bailed out by taxpayers to go back to paying bonuses as usual? Is it fair that government employees have generous fringe benefit packages when most taxpayers don't enjoy similar benefits? Is it fair to reduce taxes for the wealthy while cutting back teacher salaries, Medicaid, and child nutrition programs to reduce budget deficits? Is it fair to require everyone to buy health insurance? On the other hand, is it fair to ask others to pay the health expenses of those who don't buy insurance?
Generations of cynics have claimed that the idea of fairness is nothing more than a way of obscuring our naked self-interests. However, the emerging, multidisciplinary science of fairness contradicts them. A sense of fairness is in fact an important part of human nature, "outliers" or the Bernie Madoffs excepted.
Fairness varies, involves compromise
There are so many differences of opinion on the subject because fairness is not a formula or recipe. Our sense of fairness is shaped by various cultural influences, the immediate context, and, of course, the lure of our own self-interests. Consider how long the US tolerated slavery and how many generations it took for women to obtain the right to vote.
At heart, fairness refers to an aspect of our relationships with one another. It means taking into account different, often conflicting, interests and trying to strike a balance. Compromise is an indispensable solvent where fairness issues are concerned. But a compromise may be hard to achieve when there are two sharply opposed fairness claims.
One example is the long-running debate over affirmative action in college admissions. Each side has based its case on merit, and each has a legitimate point.
Three categories of fairness in social contract
What could be called the "deep psychology" of fairness also plays a major part in our social contract – the implicit understanding that binds together any stable and reasonably harmonious society. Our social contract involves three different categories of fairness – equality, equity (or merit), and reciprocity.