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The need for: Fairness

Explanations > Needs > Fairness

What is fair? | The golden rule | So what?


'It's not fair!' is a common cry from a very early age. It seems we have an innate need for fair play--even though we sometimes break the rules ourselves.

What is fair?

We judge fairness in a relative way, usually in comparison with our peers. A common whine that children use to persuade their parents to buy something is 'Everybody else has got one!' In fact much of our perception is based on comparison with others. For example, we think our selves successful only if we are more successful than others.

True fairness would be where everyone has the same, or there is an equitable system of balance, such as where those who work harder get more than those who are lazy. The problem is that, when thinking just of ourselves, my definition of fair and your definition of fair is likely to be different. 

Fairness tends to be more agreeable when we both look objectively at something and agree to apply the same rules. Shared rules of fairness (which often appear as values) help us live in peace together.

Unfair is not the opposite of fair

What we often call unfair is not necessarily the opposite of fair, particularly when applied to ourselves. What I will be happy to have myself, I would think unfair if other people had. There are very few people who would give away their possessions until they had the same amount as everyone else.

Many people think very little about fair play and very largely about what is unfair. Most of these are thinking about themselves, but there are also the good-hearted folks who despair at the unfairness in the world. A few of these even dedicate their lives to trying to reduce unfairness wherever they find it.

The golden rule

'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' as the Bible says. This is known as The Golden Rule, because it an almost sacrosanct social rule. It is about a balanced fairness, that counteracts the tendency to use different rules for myself and for others.

The thought of being thought unfair by other people can be a very powerful motivator. I will often be kind and fair because I fear other people seeing me break the golden rule.  

Justice for the unfairly treated

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a law of physics and a law of behavior. When people think they are being treated unfairly, they will react not only to remove the unfairness, they often want more. We call it 'justice'.

Reparative justice

The first level of justice is to have your hurts repaired by some form of compensation. And as the courts have testified, a little pain and suffering can be worth a big bag of money. Of course it does not have to be like this. Repair of relationships can be achieved with a simple apology, and sometimes that is enough. If, however, a reparation is not quickly given, then demands can escalate.

Restorative justice

If you have lost something, then you will not feel happy until it has been restored to you. Restorative justice is thus concerned with putting things back in place to where they were fairly located before the transgression.

Retributive justice

If you do not get what you consider just reparation or restoration, then you may be tipped over into the desire for retribution. The big difference when seeking of revenge is that your perception of fairness takes on a bizarre and twisted form as you seek to hurt the other person, often far more than they have hurt you.

This is, of course, the stuff of fights and wars, as an act of revenge leads to revenge in the opposite direction and a rapidly escalating spiral of violence. Retributive activity may decline, but not go away, as it flattens off into feuds which can last for centuries and many generations.

So what?

Be aware of how fair the other person things are for them. If they are feeling things are unfairly balanced against them, they will give less and want more. If they think things are the other way around, they will be more disposed to help you, doing what you ask. A principle that sits heavily on the need for fairness is reciprocity. If I give you something, then it is only fair that you give me something back (which I can ask for, specifically).

Beware of overdoing the fairness game. If you try to give them too much, stacking up what they owe you (even if it is well-meaning), they may see this as your trying to make them overly obliged to you. This is, of course, unfair, which gives them a great excuse to wipe the slate clean (and even reverse the situation by requiring reparation or taking revenge).

You can nudge people by saying something like 'That's not fair.' The fear of being thought unfair will dissuade many people.

If you upset someone, apologize early rather than trying to bluff it out. If you think it was not your fault (and that apologizing would be unfair on you), or if you are overly worried about admitting liability, then you should be prepared for a fight.

See also

Reciprocity Norm, Values

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