Fairness is Innate to Human Nature

It is more than in the eye of the beholder

Posted Jan 12, 2013

Complaining about talk about taxing the wealthy, Michael Bloomberg said, “This business of ‘Well, they can afford it; they should pay their fair share?’ Who are they to say ‘Somebody else’s fair share?’ ”

N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist, doesn’t think there is an answer. “Fairness, like beauty,” he writes, “is in the eye of the beholder.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/business/on-middle-class-tax-rates-too...

The answer to Bloomberg as a practical matter is: the electorate decides what is someone’s fair share. The rough and tumble of politics settles the matter—until another election and legislators make readjustments.

Mankiw’s comment regarding fairness is more challenging. His analogy to beauty implies that judgments about fairness are no more objective than what constitutes beauty; it is purely subjective.

Mankiw’s idea about beauty is widespread and is right on one level. People do disagree about what is beautiful. But that doesn’t stop philosophers and critics from attempting to come up with some criteria that moves beyond subjective judgments. No aesthetic judgment is absolute, but some judgments are better than others.

Several studies demonstrate beauty may well be universal, even if not objective (I will write about this in a future blog). And the same may be said about fairness. There is no absolute standard and the judgment will be influenced by the facts and the context. Nevertheless, there is an identifiable core. Jonathan Haidt sees fairness as “related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.”

Haidt, professor of psychology at New York University and founder of Moral Foundations Theory, understands fairness to be innate. Culturally variation occurs as different values are added to the mix, various narratives are employed to explain matters and institutions are created to carry out and enforce the moral foundation. http://www.moralfoundations.org/index.php?t=home

Liberals and conservatives place a different stress in the fairness component and therefore support different institutional responses to ensure a fair society. Working out these differences is a significant part of the purpose of politics.

Politics is a sub-set of ethics and ethics makes sense as it is rooted in the realities of human nature. It is in this way that ethics, politics and psychology are parts of a whole.

There is no easy answer to what fairness is, but that is something, not nothing. Fairness in taxes, like all notions of fairness, is a social concept and the answer must be arrived at through interactions with others. Some things are simply unfair. Even children know that.