A just world.

‘Daaaaaaad! You let Sam on the computer. IT’S NOT FAIR!’

So goes the soundtrack to the summer holidays. Rather than scrambling to put dinner on the table, get in the washing and manage my job (in half the usual time and without the aid of school) my top priority is to ensure parity between my children. How could I have possibly forgotten? There shouldn’t be a cigarette paper of difference in terms of equality; activities must be balanced for treat-magnitude with the judgement of Solomon. Other than of course the finely calibrated extra privileges that accrue to the my older one as a result of seniority and long service. Long service, you understand, consists of having been demanding for longer and it all counts in the great ledger that I clearly failed to check.

The importance of fairness seems to trump all other considerations, including self-interest. Give Child 1 £1 and she’ll be happy. But if she finds out Child 2 has £1.50 she’ll be angry. Take the money away from both and she’ll be satisfied. Child 1 has lost out but Child 2 has lost more so all’s right with the world. In my frazzled state it can feel like my kids are simply brats who live to make my life difficult. A more considered look at the evidence however tells a different story. Other people’s kids do the same. Always a relief. In fact research suggests that, though they may be more obvious about it, it’s not just children who have a profound (and sometimes self-injurious) aversion to unfairness. Behavioural economists Fehr and Schmidt (1999) have gone as far as to suggest that ‘willingness to sacrifice potential gain to block another individual from receiving a superior reward’ is basic to the human condition.

The strength of our attachment to equity and to a need for a just world (more pejoratively referred to as the just world fallacy) takes us to some interesting places. We explain the many inequalities of our society in terms of subjective views of deservingness (‘I worked hard for that’) or undeservingness (‘she got what was coming to her’), hidden design, karma and divine intervention. God wanted you to have a successful business and for that person in sub-Sahara Africa to get… well whatever they got that showed they were less deserving than you. All of which may make us sound an incredibly deluded and callous species, though there are arguments that a sense of a relatively fair world may actually may preserve our mental health and well-being. The great liberal touchstone of a few of years back, Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level , detailed the wide range of negative consequences associated with inequity. Not poverty you’ll notice: Inequality is far more devastating. Part of this is a sense of having a fair shot denied you and of missing out on the benefits others have from prosperity and modernity.

The need for justice leaves us struggling in situations where we are challenged to accept unfairness for a wider good. Last summer I wrote about doping in sports and the benefits of having an amnesty for rule breakers. There are many good reasons to do this (e.g. give up on enforcing unenforceable punishments; have a more open conversation about why and how doping happens). But it’s hard. I mean our favourite athlete missed out while that bastard over there was a cheat! It touches us even more closely when we feel we’ve played by the rules and other are let off for not doing so. You may have taken out a sensible mortgage, made your payments and generally not been responsible for the recession. Why then should you bail out the schlub down the road who over-borrowed and ended up in negative equity? Well perhaps because it might stop the economy going further down the toilet and we’ll all be better off. Hard though isn’t it?

Such concerns apply to groups too. It’s one of the reasons why responsible Germany struggles to come to the rescue of profligate Greece. (Though, in truth, there is a far more complex story to tell about the thrifty northern burghers and the spendthrift southern dilettantes). For me, the most difficult struggles of all occur in places where people have been asked to move on from terrifying crimes without seeking justice. Places such as South Africa, where redress for apartheid was eschewed in favour of the truth and (hopefully) reconciliation, and Rwanda, where victims and perpetrators of the most heinous violence live side-by-side: the risk of a spiral of vengeance held in check by the big picture of driving towards economic growth.

How people can live in modern Rwanda in such circumstances I struggle to imagine. I mean I get consumed with ire about as when someone cuts me up a red light. It comes as something of a relief then to find that Fehr and Schmidt, and other behavioural economists, do see an important role for righteous indignation. There are differing theories, but the gist of all of them is that those who punish other individuals, and take the negative consequences for themselves, actually perform a service for the rest of us. The punishers may lose but more broadly we gain as such negative consequences ultimately lead to greater cooperation in wider societies. Basically we know not to stuff others because it’ll come back on us in the end.

Beyond musing on the fundamental nature of humanity, where does this leave me with the holiday club I call my home? Well it’s good to know there can be an upside to me occasionally losing patience and banning everyone from Kawai Run 2. Someone in the scenario will learn a lesson and become a more socially cooperative individual, though I’ve rather lost track of who. More broadly though, if the childrens’ primary concern is fairness perhaps the striving for a joyous holiday, and all of the attendant treats, might be unnecessary. Maybe all they need is some drawing stuff and to be left to get on with it.

‘Daaaaad! She’s got five pencils and I only have four…’

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3 comments on “A just world

  1. Nice to have something lighter on the summer holidays. Well I think its a bit lighter anyway. My kids older now but remember it all too well. Actually they haven't really got over getting angry about fairness. They just don't see each other so much!

  2. …and so it goes on into adulthood and beyond. Whilst not having children myself John's experiences resonate with mine, but just bouncing off different points of comparison, nieces, nephews, students, the yobs who throw litter, those who make demands but take little responsibility themselves. Oh my god I can hear myself start to say. ……it wasn't like that in my day, which makes me only one step away from sitting cross legged with John's kids and sobbing….. its not fair. Well, actually I do think there is a point of entitlement which we are now stepping beyond, especially having read in the money supplement of one the week-end papers (looking as ever for the better mortgage, savings, etc. deal) in a review of children and pocket money that a brat/son told his mother she was a disgrace for only giving him 5 grand (YES, 5K) on his 18th birthday. Jean Twenge and Keith Cambell have called this the Age of Entitlement, and puts it down to the Rise of Narcissism, I think they have something there.

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