Fairness amongst little brown monkeys  


Brown capuchin monkeys get very upset if they are unfairly treated (reported in 'Nature' in September 2003 - for summary see web-site below).

Initially, all of the members of the group were offered a piece of cucumber as a reward for handing a small piece of granite to a researcher.  However when later some of them were given the reward without handing over the piece of rock, or were given a better reward e.g. some grapes, the others revolted - they variously refused to eat the cucumber they had just earned, or threw it back at the researcher in apparent disgust. So then it seems that the concept of fairness is a part of our biological make-up. As such, it must have an evolutionary benefit. One can conjecture that it has something to do with evening out resources in a social group and at the same time providing motivation for persuading members to pitch in and do their bit for the group in return.

But it is also an integral part of the thinking behind Socialism and of course Communism.  They consider it to be not so much part of our biology as a fundamental principle, a principle which gives rights to workers.  Principles are always problematic.  They are interpreted very inflexibly.  Well, they are principles.  However, if fairness is not actually a god-given principle but merely a form of biological behaviour which happens to promote our survival as a species, with all the variation that this implies, then it all has to be looked at in a different light.

The behaviour of animals, even animals of the same species, is not the same. It may be similar, but it does vary. For example. some animals are more belligerent than others. Some animals take more part in getting food for the group than others. Some are better parents than others. Amongst human beings, we would all recognise significant variability in the way we react to life. And the same is true of our reaction to unfairness.

Fairness is a very difficult concept to define. We all have different ideas of what is justifiable and what is unfair.  Most of us think that pay should reflect skill and hard work.  Some hard-line communists thought that everyone should be paid the same.  Of course if someone-else is paid more for doing the same job as me by my own employer, then I will be very upset.  But it is unlikely that I shall feel it to be unfair if someone-else in a foreign country is paid less than me for doing that job - unless I lose mine as a consequence. Football fans seem to accept the payment to their players of immense amounts of money for playing a game, whilst those of us without any interest in the game look on in disbelief.  Some accept that the likes of Richard Branson who have made immense amounts of money through their business acumen deserve to benefit from it.  Others rail against the capitalists and seek to overthrow them.  Bankers have an almost universally bad press, but the remuneration committees of the banks seem to think that their astronomical rewards are justified.

What we cannot do any longer is continue to pretend that there is some underlying 'principle of fairness'.  We have to be pragmatic about it instead of trying to apply what we now know to be a non-existent principle. There is no one size fits all version of fairness which is universally accepted and so we have to consider very carefully what we are asking for when we demand fairness for ourselves or others.  We have somehow to say what it is we are trying to achieve in the application of the notion of fairness.  It seems to me that we are looking mainly to motivate people and so we should be trying to see how that can best be achieved.  Strikes and demonstrations might be better replaced with more research into how the human psyche actually responds to reward.



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