Home > guest post > Unequal or Unfair: Which Is Worse?

Unequal or Unfair: Which Is Worse?

December 6, 2012

This is a guest post by Alan Honick, a filmmaker whose past work has focused primarily on the interaction between civilization and natural ecosystems, and its consequences to the sustainability of both. Most recently he’s become convinced that fairness is the key factor that underlies sustainability, and has embarked on a quest to understand how our notions of fairness first evolved, and what’s happening to them today. I posted about his work before here. This is crossposted from Pacific Standard.

Inequality is a hot topic these days. Massive disparities in wealth and income have grown to eye-popping proportions, triggering numerous studies, books, and media commentaries that seek to explain the causes of inequality, why it’s growing, and its consequences for society at large.

Inequality triggers anger and frustration on the part of a shrinking middle class that sees the American Dream slipping from its grasp, and increasingly out of the reach of its children. But is it inequality per se that actually sticks in our craw?

There will always be inequality among humans—due to individual differences in ability, ambition, and more often than most would like to admit, luck. In some ways, we celebrate it. We idolize the big winners in life, such as movie and sports stars, successful entrepreneurs, or political leaders. We do, however (though perhaps with unequal ardor) feel badly for the losers—the indigent and unfortunate who have drawn the short straws in the lottery of life.

Thus, we accept that winning and losing are part of life, and concomitantly, some level of inequality.

Perhaps it’s simply the extremes of inequality that have changed our perspective in recent years, and clearly that’s part of the explanation. But I put forward the proposition that something far more fundamental is at work—a force that emerges from much deeper in our evolutionary past.

Take, for example, the recent NFL referee lockout, where incompetent replacement referees were hired to call the games.There was an unrestrained outpouring of venom from outraged fans as blatantly bad calls resulted in undeserved wins and losses. While sports fans are known for the extremity of their passions, they accept winning and losing; victory and defeat are intrinsic to playing a game.

What sparked the fans’ outrage wasn’t inequality—the win or the loss. Rather, the thing they couldn’t swallow—what stuck in their craw—was unfairness.

I offer this story from the KLAS-TV News website. It’s a Las Vegas station, and appropriately, the story is about how the referee lockout affected gamblers. It addresses the most egregiously bad call of the lockout, in a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. From the story:

In a call so controversial the President of the United States weighed in, Las Vegas sports bettors said they lost out on a last minute touchdown call Monday night…

….Chris Barton, visiting Las Vegas from Rhode Island, said he lost $1,200 on the call against Green Bay. He said as a gambler, he can handle losing, “but not like that.”

“I’ve been gambling for 30 years almost, and that’s the worst defeat ever,” he said.

By the way, Obama’s “weigh-in” was through his Twitter feed, which I reproduce here:

 “NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs’ lockout is settled soon. –bo”

When questioned about the president’s reaction, his press secretary, Jay Carney, said Obama thought “there was a real problem with the call,” and said the president expressed frustration at the situation.

I think this example is particularly instructive, simply because money’s involved, and money—the unequal distribution of it—is where we began.

Fairness matters deeply to us. The human sense of fairness can be traced back to the earliest social-living animals. One of its key underlying components is empathy, which began with early mammals. It evolved through processes such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism, which set us on the path toward the complex societies of today.

Fairness—or lack of it—is central to human relationships at every level, from a marriage between two people to disputes involving war and peace among the nations of the world.

I believe fairness is what we need to focus on, not inequality—though I readily acknowledge that high inequality in wealth and income is corrosive to society. Why that is has been eloquently explained by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkerson in their book, The Spirit Level. The point I have been trying to make is that inequality is the symptom; unfairness is the underlying disease.

When dealing with physical disease, it’s important to alleviate suffering by treating painful symptoms, and inequality can certainly be painful to those who suffer at the lower end of the wage scale, or with no job at all. But if we hope for a lasting cure, we need to address the unfairness that causes it.

That said, creating a fairer society is a daunting challenge. Inequality is relatively easy to understand—it’s measurable by straightforward statistics. Fairness is a subtler concept. Our notions of fairness arise from a complex interplay between biology and culture, and after 10,000 years of cultural evolution, it’s often difficult to pick them apart.

Yet many researchers are trying. They are looking into the underlying components of the human sense of fairness from a variety of perspectives, including such disciplines as behavioral genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary and developmental psychology, animal behavior, and experimental economics.

In order to better understand fairness, and communicate their findings to a larger audience, I’ve embarked on a multimedia project to work with these researchers. The goal is to synthesize different perspectives on our sense of fairness, to paint a clearer picture of its origins, its evolution, and its manifestations in the social, economic, and political institutions of today.

The first of these multimedia stories appeared here at Pacific Standard. Called The Evolution of Fairness, it is about archaeologist Brian Hayden. It explores his central life work—a dig in a 5000 year old village in British Columbia, where he uncovered evidence of how inequality may have first evolved in human society.

I found another story on a CNN blog about the bad call in the Seahawks/Packers game. In it, Paul Ryan compares the unfair refereeing to President Obama’s poor handling of the economy. He says, “If you can’t get it right, it’s time to get out.” He goes on to say, “Unlike the Seattle Seahawks last night, we want to deserve this victory.”

We now know how that turned out, though we don’t know if Congressman Ryan considers his own defeat a deserved one.

I’ll close with a personal plea to President Obama. I hope—and believe—that as you are starting your second term, you are far more frustrated with the unfairness in our society than you were with the bad call in the Seahawks/Packers game. It’s arguable that some of the rules—such as those governing campaign finance—have themselves become unfair. In any case, if the rules that govern society are enforced by bad referees, fairness doesn’t stand much of a chance, and as we’ve seen, that can make people pretty angry.

Please, for the sake of fairness, hire some good ones.

Categories: guest post
  1. December 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    if people werent able to buy a politician , thing might have a chance to be fair


  2. Danon
    December 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Before we talk about fairness, we need to ask ourselves first who do we want to define fairness?


    • December 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      We are already defining fairness, but it’s not thoughtful.

      In other words there’s a default which is a de facto definition of fairness, like there’s already a system in place for most things. It’s important to recognize that we are already balancing fairness vs. equality, and to ask whether we balance them well.

      In terms of who gets to define it, it’s probably the people who have power and leverage. And I’d like to think these are elected officials, but I think these are mostly lobbyists.


      • Danon
        December 6, 2012 at 2:38 pm

        This may be a stupid (feel free to call me out if it is): Have you ever thought that what you consider fair may be different from those who have power and leverage (elected officials)?


        • December 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm

          Not stupid at all. In cultural terms, who gets to define fairness is the core issue. It’s a process that’s been going on, apparently, for a very long time––since the transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies to the beginning of class stratification. Those who manage to garner wealth and political power use that power to re-define the norms of fairness to maintain and enhance their positions.


        • Danon
          December 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm

          I agree. That’s why, I am not an utopian.


      • Nathanael
        December 23, 2012 at 11:58 pm

        I don’t believe the elite are capable of redefining our cultural norms of fairness. They *try* and they spread propaganda, but the norms are largely hard-wired (by the unchanging demands of reciprocal altruism).


        • December 24, 2012 at 11:35 am

          I would agree that there are a set of hard-wired fairness norms that are the result of biological evolution, though like any genetically based trait, there is significant individual variability. However, I believe that the cultural norms of fairness are malleable, and are indeed defined by the wealthy and powerful, in any society.


      • April 30, 2013 at 12:47 am

        As Alan Honick started to hint in this discussion, the concept of fairness is culture dependent. Not only should you question if your notion of fairness is reflected by those of the elites or law-makers, you should worry about how much your notion of fairness is just an artifact of the society you happen to have been raised in.

        Unlike, Honick’s suggestion though, I don’t know of any convincing evidence that some part of our conceptions of fairness is biological. There is simply too much variation across diffferent cultures, but maybe these capuchin monkeys disagree.


  3. elzorado
    December 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    One key problem confronting humanity is what in economics is termed the distribution problem; how the fruits of the Earth and (subsequently or sequentially) society, are allocated at all levels and stages of decision-making –resource allocation, choice of activity and product, production processes, purchasing and so on.
    The choices are based on human self-interest, but the allocations have been best handled -to date anyway- by the market mechansim. It is by no means precise, but at the macro level, markets driven by agggregated supply and demand, have been the most efficient –the fairest-allocator of society’s resources.
    The growing unfairness that we see everywhere is due to many interventions in the market mechansism by politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and a host of others –all predicated on the notion that they “know best” how the goodies should be divided. Some will be motivated by their own notions of “fairness” (perhaps ideologically-driven do-gooders and politicans), others by blatant self-interest ( lobbyists and ambitious indidviduals) and others by more primitive fears, envy and protection of their benefited positions.
    What has failed us throughout our evolution ( and perhaps influenced the stop-start, creative destruction important for our emerging supremacy over other species) is our abysmal knowledge of our social processes and economic behaviours in a working sense. We can surmise in general what people might do/want/ need, but not in sufficient detail to make predictions at societal level. We can be ‘fair’ at inidiviual or group levels, when all participants have full/reasonable knowledge of all variables, but we rely on slippery/sticky price mechanisms for allocating fair shares at the ramped up level.
    It would be of great benefit if economic theory could be made more rigorous and dependable by non-ideological application of maths….the current standard of economic debate and theory purports to be statistically sophisticated but in truth is shallow and incompetent. Hence the idea of many a politician et al, that they know best what is fair for all in our society.
    The polarization of wealth and decimation of the middle class that is happening during our recent life-time and in many Western/non-Western societies around the world, will in time lead to such an intensity of notions of unfairness and inquity( and the futility of expecting fair recompense through existing norms and laws), that insurrection and revolution/civil disturbance may be seen as the best/only way of achieving a fairer share. The Arab Spring may just be the tip of the iceberg.
    Obama’s quip about the referees is also a reflection of his inadequacy at dealing with the economic shrapnel and fall-out from the GFC–the really important things; all notions of fairness were obliterated by the actions taken by his appointees not to ‘punish’ those responsible and to protect/subsidize those companies which – “in the interests of a fair outcome for all” –should have gone to the wall.
    With social media and the global communnications/technolgy now around, the prevalent examples of unfairness by governments and those occupying seats fo power, are readily evident to everyone.


  4. Savanarola
    December 7, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Ugh – do I have to scientifically test the hypotheses, or can I just anecdotally confirm and move on? It wouldn’t be so bad if things weren’t so insanely tight. And frankly, I am beyond sick of the ugly flesh wound of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

    Sadly, my interface with academia completely confirms your hunches.


  5. Nathanael
    December 23, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    I don’t disagree with anything in this article, but I’d like to point something out.

    Currently, the elite have so much wealth that it was impossible for them to “earn” it by any normal definition of “earn”.

    Some inherited it — luck of birth. And some just got lucky in other ways than by birth — a good bet on the stock market, perhaps.

    Many stole it. Stole it legally, perhaps, by flimflamming people or abusing workers or whatever. But basically, stole it.

    Now, that doesn’t seem *fair* to us humans. It doesn’t seem *fair* that the richest people are there because of luck, and it seems even less fair that they are there due to thievery or other evil behavior.

    People would tolerate inequality if the richest people were there due to, say, curing cancer or discovering cheap solar power. But that’s just not how it is in reality.


  1. December 7, 2012 at 7:11 pm
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