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Conclusion: The Judgment of Fairness

• August 31, 2012 • 9:11 AM

Our multimedia presentation on the evolution of fairness concludes by asking if even today humankind has found a way to be both cooperative and competitive.

Previous: Seeing Fairness Evolve

Brian Hayden’s phrase at the end of the last video—”the judgment of fairness”—captures an important implication of his theory. Whereas the norms of fairness among hunter-gatherers are common to all members of the group, in transegalitarian societies fairness is essentially an agreement among a sufficient number of the wealthy and well-connected, who are able to enforce their version of fairness on the society as a whole.

If Brian’s theory is correct, the process is a slippery slope. What begins as favoritism within a small circle of friends becomes cronyism among the members of an in-group. It’s a system that tends to concentrate power in the hands of a few, but it’s simply a consequence of the natural variability in human personality evolving in conditions of surplus.

A compelling argument for his ideas is that there are parallels in contemporary life—for example, campaign finance in the United States, particularly in the age of Citizens United. Current laws and regulations allow a small group of the wealthy and well-connected to exert a powerful influence over both the perception and the legal definitions of fairness, including tax fairness and acceptable concentrations of wealth.

There is growing sentiment that U.S. campaign finance is unfair, which begs the question we asked earlier—how much has cultural evolution actually changed our human sense of fairness? Does it function differently today than it did in our hunting and gathering days? And how did it really function among the transegalitarians? If our ancestors had in fact developed an innate sense of fairness, wouldn’t the poor at Keatley Creek have been somewhat perturbed? How complacently did they accept their lot?

If you were part of an aggrandizer’s support group, you’d likely regard the unequal conditions as fair. You might over time even develop a sense of entitlement. But if you were a poor worker watching your housemates chewing succulent filets across the pit, while you boiled fish bones to get the scraps of flesh, it’s plausible that life would seem a little bit unfair.

Fairness Today

Today’s poor—worldwide—watch the rich and famous pursue their luxurious lifestyles on reality TV, rather than on the opposite side of the pit house. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychologists maintain that our fundamental perceptual, emotional and behavioral traits are largely unchanged from our hunting and gathering days. We fear now what we feared then, and seek the same basic satisfactions. But our world today is considerably changed from the world where these traits evolved, and as a result, our behaviors aren’t always appropriate to our current situations.

Economic competition coupled with technological innovation has led to the incredible accomplishments and opportunities of modern life. But the consequences of those activities also pose potential challenges to concepts of fairness, and to the sustainability of our civilization.

We are both cooperative and competitive, but it seems difficult for us to find the right balance between cooperation and competition in a truly global civilization—to come to agreement, as a worldwide species, on what really constitutes fairness in the early years of the 21st century. Our inability to adequately address the challenge of climate change is a striking example.

Climate change is driven by myriad actions of billions of people striving to improve their lives. Immediate needs—will there be food tomorrow?—overwhelm concerns about future and uncertain changes in climate. In such a causally complex, global scale problem, how can we design institutions that enable us to fairly share the costs and consequences of our activities on the environment?

The sustainability of hunter-gatherer groups was closely tied to their sense of fairness. In a world where scarcity was the primary challenge, sharing and cooperation were the norms that worked to ensure the group’s survival. What are the norms of fairness that will work in our situation today, when we again find ourselves confronting the potential of scarcity—of energy, clean water, fresh air, food, and the earth’s rich heritage of biological diversity that ultimately supports our civilization?

Alan Honick with Gordon Orians
Alan Honick is a documentary filmmaker who has focused on issues of ecology and human sustainability for most of his career. Gordon Orians, a behavioral ecologist, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. His most intensive research area has been behavioral ecology, primarily with problems of habitat selection, mate selection, and mating systems. Recently he has focused on human emotional responses to environments.

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