Sunday, September 13, 2009

Justice as fairness

Recent studies show that even among dogs and monkeys, aversion to unfair treatment is a natural or an evolved behaviour. So, it is not only human beings who have a sense of fair play, this fact which has intrigued many scientists: the query on whether our dislike for unfairness is a product of evolution or the result of the cultural influence of large institutions like religion, government, schools or our society in general.

Inspired by studies on human cooperation by the Swiss economist Ernst Fehr who found that people inherently reject unfairness, a researcher from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, designed an experiment for brown capuchin monkeys. Pairs of capuchins were placed next to each other and trained to exchange with human handlers a small granite rock within 60 seconds to receive a reward, in most cases, a piece of cucumber.

Partners of capuchins who made the swap either received the same reward (a cucumber slice), or a better reward (a grape, a more desirable food). The response to the unequal treatment astonished the researchers. Capuchins which saw unfair treatment and failed to benefit from it often refused to conduct future swaps with human researchers, would not eat the cucumbers, and in some cases, hurled food rewards at the researchers.

The findings were significant as they confirmed that not only did capuchins expect fair treatment, but that the human desire for equity may have an evolutionary basis.

Fehr, who has published his research on the economics of human equity, cooperation and altruism, was not surprised by the research findings. He observed: “The new finding that even monkeys reject unequal pay is very important. I think, because it suggests that this is a very deeply rooted behaviour that we observe among humans.”

In a similar study involving dogs, researchers found that dogs also understand fairness and get jealous or resentful when other dogs get a better deal.

A researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments with dogs who knew how to respond to the command “give the paw,” or shake. The dogs were normally happy to repeatedly give the paw, whether they got a reward or not.

But the dogs changed their behaviour when they saw other dogs being rewarded with a piece of food while they received nothing. The unrewarded dogs eventually stopped cooperating, just like the capuchin monkeys in the earlier experiment.

Both findings did not come as a surprise to Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University and a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre. According to Waal, dogs and monkeys live in cooperative societies so they would also have some sense of fairness.

Within most of us lies a strong sense of fairness, plus a powerful desire for justice. We wish someone driving over the limit be pulled over and get a ticket. Most Americans understand the need for health reform and wish the U.S. health care system to treat the rich and poor equally well. We want the thief or the murderer to be caught. But the reality is, oftentimes this doesn’t happen. We learn to accept the world’s petty cruelties and let such injustices slide, while others reel with contempt for such unfairness and burn with it from within.

Fairness and justice may be one of the earliest abstract ideas we have encountered as young children. These may not be uniquely human concepts anymore as recent studies about dogs and monkeys would show. For it seems that the universe has a sense of fairness; it is just a shame that it is often violated.

At first sight, the concepts of justice and fairness seem identical. But the legal philosopher John Rawls would caution us that this impression is a mistaken one. To Rawls, the fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness which is misleadingly expressed by the idea of the social contract by utilitarian philosophers like Hume and Mill.

According to Rawls, justice as fairness, a phrase he used to refer to his distinctive theory of justice, consists of two principles. The first principle is that each person has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with similar liberty for others. It is not surprising that this may sound like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The second principle, which Rawls called the fair equality of opportunity, asserts that justice should not benefit those with advantageous social contingencies, and inequality may only be justified if it is to the advantage of those who are less well-off.

One of Wal-Mart’s core principles is fairness. But when you look at the huge income gap that exists between “associates,” as employees are called in Wal-Mart, and their bosses, it appears that Wal-Mart doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.

For instance, in 2008 Wal-Mart paid its former president and chief executive officer (CEO) a total compensation of over $31 million. Break it down into a wage and you’ll arrive at more than $15,000.00 per hour or about $253.00 per minute.

Meanwhile, the average Wal-Mart employee in Canada made a little over $14,000.00 during the same year. This means that an “associate” took 12 months to earn what the Wal-Mart CEO pocketed in less than 57 minutes.

CEOs will probably always make more than workers, and maybe they should, but should they make 2,229 times more than the people who make their wealth possible?

Is it fair that the investment wizards at Wall Street should receive hefty bonuses when their decisions contributed to the U.S. financial meltdown? Or is it fair that ordinary workers at General Motors, Chrysler and other manufacturing companies should lose their jobs and pension benefits whereas their bosses could just as happily walk through the sunset with their golden parachutes?

If human beings have an innate sense of fairness, why is it that the world has so much abundance of unfairness everywhere?

John Rawls has pointed out that the stability of any society depends upon the extent its members feel they are being treated justly. When some of society’s members feel they are not being treated equally, the grounds have been laid for social unrest, disturbances, and strife. The members of a community, Rawls holds, depend on each other, and they will maintain social unity only to the extent that their institutions are just.

Thus, in the above examples where individuals are treated unequally on the basis of characteristics that are arbitrary and irrelevant, e.g., associates or bosses, or investment gurus or factory workers, their fundamental human dignity is violated. Only when human beings are treated equally will they have the same dignity, and by virtue of this dignity, they deserve to be treated as equals.

We must therefore ask ourselves whether our actions treat all persons equally. Justice is a manifestation of our mutual recognition of each other’s dignity, and that if we acknowledge the need to live together in an interdependent relationship, then we must treat each other as equals.

The Golden Rule, or in a similar vein, Rawls’ first principle of justice as fairness, is almost an inviolable social rule. It is all about balanced fairness. Sometimes the thought of being considered unfair by other people can be a very powerful motivator because this often impels us to be kind and fair for fear that others may see us breaking the Golden Rule.

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