Why Does Fairness Matter?

How we can foster greater equality at home and at work.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

In relationships, in families, and at work, fairness seems to get a bad rap. When someone shouts, “That’s not fair!” we are quick to respond with, “Too bad! Life isn’t fair.” And that’s the message, isn’t it? Don’t expect life to be fair. You’ve got to take what you can get, and if it’s unjust to another, so be it.

But is this reasonable?

The paradox is that we are capable of detecting inequality instantly and are extremely sensitive to it. In relationships, we call it keeping score. Usually people dislike score-keeping, and strangely it is the people that are ahead of the game who resent it. Why? Because keeping score is a way to balance the scales and restore equality. Humans don’t have a monopoly on this strategy.

CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

Vampire bats also solve the problem of potential disparity by keeping score. Tit-for-tat, to be exact. While many people find them scary, vampire bats know more about give-and-take than a lot of people. To avoid mass starvation, the bats cooperate, adopting a life-saving strategy. A hungry bat can ask for and receive help. A fellow group member who returns to the roost after having successfully found food will regurgitate blood for its hungry pal. Then, if the one who donated food finds him or herself in need of assistance on another evening, the one who earlier received a blood donation has to reciprocate. It’s only fair. If he or she doesn’t reciprocate, his or her buddy finds a new partner immediately.

What are the general animal rules for keeping score? It’s pretty simple: (1) Never be the first to defect, where defect means failure to cooperate (or be fair); (2) retaliate only after your partner has defected, where retaliate means to not cooperate and be unfair; (3) carry out only a single act of retaliation, then forgive (cooperate again); and (4) only use this strategy when you know you will interact repeatedly with the same individual. Like it or not, keeping score is an effective way to make sure your partner is contributing equally to the interaction. Given our sensitivity to fairness, instead of asking why your partner is keeping score, maybe you could ask yourself whether you are contributing equally and cooperating.

By JJ Harrison CC BY-SA 3.0
Source: By JJ Harrison CC BY-SA 3.0

When it comes to family life, treating children unequally is a recipe for discord, because children, like adults, keep score. Hadn’t you noticed? Parents frequently assert that they love all their children equally, but many of us, having all been children at one point, know unequivocally that this does not reflect our own experience. Wandering albatross chicks know all too well about disparate treatment. Quite simply, male chicks are fed more, and as a result, they are more likely to survive and thrive. There can be many reasons a parent will treat one child differently from another. The key is communication. Parents can, and should, explain to their children any differences in treatment and balance the scales in other ways to diminish the risk of serious problems emerging in their “disfavored” offspring. Aside from causing psychological problems, including depression, low self-esteem, and reduced overall success, favoritism also leads to sibling hostility and resentment. Arbitrary favoritism is fertile ground for sibling rivalry. Only by recognizing our tendency to play favorites can parents make an effort to level the playing field.

Keeping score isn’t just helpful to maintaining balance and fostering fairness in relationships and among siblings. It is crucial in the workplace. On January 3, 2018, Iceland made it illegal to pay women less for the same work. On January 21, 2018, women (and men) marched all over the world in part to demand equal pay. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency reports that women on average earn 84 cents on the dollar compared to men. Minorities and women are paid less than their socially defined, Caucasian, privileged male counterparts, and those on the receiving end of the inequality are reasonably and justifiably outraged — because it isn’t fair.

By Frans de Waal, CC BY 2.5
Source: By Frans de Waal, CC BY 2.5

Capuchin monkeys have a strong sense of fairness and are of the philosophy that equal work demands equal pay. Capuchins compare what they are getting relative to what another is getting for the same amount of effort, and they refuse to participate if they think something is unfair. Not only that, but if they see another individual get more for the same amount of effort, or worse, get more for less effort, capuchins will flat out refuse to do the task in subsequent rounds of testing. They also don’t work together again with someone who was unfair. The key here is fairness. What does this mean in the average workplace, where employees are pitted against each other behind a wall of secrecy regarding salaries? If your employer does not make salaries public, cooperate with each other and reveal salaries, and demand that those doing the same job receive the same pay.

When someone other than ourselves is angry or resentful about an inequality, instead of uttering the famous phrase, “Life isn’t fair. Get over it," do something different. If you are the offender, either in a relationship or in how your treat your children, change your behavior and restore balance. If you see inequality, injustice, and disparity in the workplace over pay or tasks, be transparent with co-workers, divide work evenly, and cooperate. After all, it's only fair.