Here’s a “pop quiz” on fairness.
There is growing evidence that a sense of fairness toward others is one of our most distinctive personality traits.
However, like all other traits in humankind, and in every other species as well, there is a significant degree of biological (and environmental) variation among us. The evidence suggests that perhaps one-quarter of us are more or less “fairness challenged,” meaning that some of us tend to be self-absorbed, selfish, and lacking in empathy. Indeed, some of us are totally insensitive to the needs and interests of others. This month’s Psychology Today article about narcissism highlights one variation on this theme. Narcissists can be very self-centered and exploitative of others.
But most of us do respond to the claims of fairness. Fairness means, quite simply, taking into account the interests and needs of other parties, or “stakeholders,” and trying to strike a balance between them. So here’s an informal “pop quiz.” How would you answer these questions about some everyday fairness issues? (I should warn you that there are two sides to some of these questions, so the answers may not be as straight forward as you think.)
— Is it fair to keep a convicted prisoner incarcerated if DNA evidence later proves he or she was innocent?
— Is it fair for our schools to promote students who fail along with the students who work hard and get good grades?
— Is it fair for a hardware store to raise the price of snow shovels in anticipation of a spring snow storm when supplies of shovels are low (to use a textbook example)?
— Is it fair for somebody who has access to confidential information about a public corporation that will later impact on the price of its stock to take advantage of it and engage in “insider trading?”
— Is it fair for a qualified auto mechanic who made a mistake in repairing your car to charge you for a return visit to correct his mistake?
— Is it fair, when motorists on a highway are instructed to merge into another lane to have some car come from behind, go to the head of the line and then cut in?
— Is it fair for some of our millionaires and billionaires (and corporations) to set up offshore tax havens so that they can avoid paying taxes?
— Is it fair to give both your ten-year-old and your fifteen-year-old child the same weekly allowance?
— Is it fair that capital gains from stock investments should be taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income from work?
— Is it fair for somebody who is late for work to cut in to the front of the line at Starbucks?
— Is it fair for the banks that were bailed out by the taxpayers to return to paying out billions of dollars in bonuses to their employees while the many millions who have been thrown out of work as a result of their malfeasance (and fraud) are struggling to meet their basic needs?
If you answered “no” to all of these questions, it’s apparent that you have a finely tuned sense of fairness. If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may well have had good reasons. But, if so, I hope you can at least recognize that there are other perspectives, and that fairness requires us to take these into account. Compromises are essential if we want to achieve a fair society.
Needless to say, there is no such thing as a formal Fairness Quotient, but maybe there ought to be. Some politicians in Washington D.C. these days would surely rank near the bottom of the scale.