About Fairness

Some time ago, I was asked the question, “Why do I think that the world/society needs to/should be fair,” and “Why do I think that should be our end goal?”

Although it looks like something we would likely dismiss with the wave of our hands, accompanied with the comment, “What a silly question,” let’s try to give a proper answer.

To begin with, a question of fairness is not the question of a goal, but more of an ability. It’s like asking, “Do we need lungs?” Maybe we do not, but, if we don’t, is there a better option that can provide oxygen for our body, and, in that case, would we need oxygen at all?

So, why do we need fairness?

Let’s begin with the following opening statement:

Prof Bekoff, who presents his case in a new book Wild Justice, said, “The belief that humans have morality and animals don't is a long-standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case.” *1

As many studies are showing, it seems that fairness is not something that is exclusive to humans, but it is a property that is hard-coded in many other animals.

Fairness is baked into the brains of all mammals and provides the "social glue" that allows often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups, giving them a better chance of survival.

We can think about fairness as a trait that decreases the unpredictability of a system. The more unpredictable members of the society we interact with are, the lower our chance of survival.

Unfairness is in some sense directly correlated with unpredictability. We communicate, make agreements, shake hands, and have unwritten rules of trust, in order to make our lives easier and to allow us to live longer. In order to fulfill its purpose, society has to increase predictability by controlling communication channels and improving the accuracy of exchanged information.

The simplest way would be to imagine two robots: one is white and one is black. To keep moving, they need to find new batteries, but the batteries for the black robot are hidden under white pieces, and vice versa. Each robot is programmed to only touch objects of its own color; the only way to get new batteries is to ask the other robot for information on where they are and for help in retrieving them. However, whenever the black robot asks the question, the white robot gives the wrong answer. After a while, the black robot will shut down, running out of charge. Even if the black robot has been providing correct information to help the white robot, the shutdown of the black robot will make the white robot lose the ability to find new batteries. The only option for both robots to survive is to transfer information truthfully in both directions.

Our society is very similar to this example; we need one another in order to survive.

Unpredictability in the above context does not mean knowing exactly how will one person behave, but it means knowing enough to determine that the other person’s behaviors or actions won’t be dangerous for our survival. It is predictability of the nature of a behavior (god/bad) rather than predictability of the behavior on its own.

At the same time, this is the reason why we are hesitant to make new friendships with people about whom we do not know much. If we do not have some kind of track record, we do not have much to begin with, and that can be intimidating. We can rely on gut feelings, trust, and facial expressions from the other person, but, if we really get in trouble with a true predator, none of those things will help, as a true predator always has methods to trick his prey. That is the reason why we chat, gossip, live in a communal society, and, in some weird way, doing all those things helps others. Whatever happens to one person ripples through society, with a number of messages to give warnings to others.

Imagine what the world would look like if someone would pull out a gun every time we smile and extend our hand in greeting. It would be chaotic, drastically unpredictable, and would have been understood as predatory behavior, endangering lives.

By the rule of group survival, we try to eliminate any such member of society, in order to decrease danger and the possibility of harming one or more member of our society.

Let me give an example, from the film "The Ghost and the Darkness," a fictionalized account of the true story about the two lions that attacked and killed workers in Tsavo, Kenya during the building of the Uganda-Mombasa Railway in East Africa in 1898. Those two lions represent a typical example of the force of nature: unpredictable and cannot be controlled. This force presents a real danger for the members of society, and society decides to eliminate the threat by killing the lions.

It is the same reason why we lock up murderers and other criminals. Their unpredictability presents a danger for the other members of society, the majority of whom have a shared social contact of living peacefully by contributing to the betterment of society. In order to decrease suffering, this majority can exclude or banish such members from what is otherwise a cohesive group.

Theoretically, it is possible for some members to gain enough power that they will become stronger than the group, giving them the ability to operate beyond the rules of the group. In that case, fairness would not be applicable, and the group would be fully subjected to the temperament of that one entity, regardless of how crazy that entity may be.

Wealthy people, dictators, and politicians usually have a similar advantage, but there are always ways that even the weakest link can restore balance or destroy the entire system.

At the end of the day, we are faced with the question on whether we prefer chaos or order, uncertainty or trust, fairness or deception. Whatever we choose, we will have to deal with the consequences.

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