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Unequal or Unfair: Which Is Worse?

• November 16, 2012 • 11:06 AM

Occupy Wall Street protesters, in this case in Portland, Oregon. Was their greatest beef with inequality or with unfairness?

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.

This post first appeared appeared on the PsychologyToday.com’s “Pura Vida” blog.

Alan Honick
Alan Honick is a documentary filmmaker who has focused on issues of ecology and human sustainability for most of his career.

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