To be fair is to be human?

Give WaySandwiched in the middle of the Six Pillars, Fairness doesn’t always get to take center stage. But in a fascinating article in The New York Times, Natalie Angier traces the human desire for fairness back to our evolutionary roots.

Angier begins by looking at the equalizing habits of hunter-gatherers in Paraguay and bushmen and foragers in Africa. To keep things balanced, these societies have rituals in place, like casting insults at a hunter who is too full of himself, or requiring childless gatherers to share excess food with families with children. In the United States, by contrast, as of 2007 the top 1% owned almost 35% of the wealth, and the top 20% owned 85% of the wealth. It’s not fair, and it makes a lot of people’s blood boil.

That, Angier says, is no surprise. Brain scientists in Stockholm have found that the desire for fairness begins in the primitive amygdala, which means fairness has been with us throughout our evolution. According to biologists, Angier writes,  “Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”

The desire for fairness is one of the traits that makes humans human. Chimpanzees will allow the toughest member of the group to dominate, but humans can band together, place their trust in each other, and overcome that bully.

Angier makes sure to point out that we still tolerate hierarchy. Scientists from the University of Washington studied five hunter-gatherer groups, and found “the average degree of income inequality to be roughly half that seen in the United States.”

Are Americans just different from hunter-gatherers? Are we more tolerant of unfairness?

No. According to another survey, Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – imagine an optimal wealth gradient in the U.S.A. that in no way resembles our actual wealth gradient. Instead it looks a lot like Sweden.

*Read Angier’s New York Times story here.

*Visit our free Lesson Plan Bank for lessons on Fairness for students of all ages.

5 thoughts on “To be fair is to be human?”

  1. Your article fails to mention how this country became so unfair. I blame the corporate takeover of government. The super-wealthy get their people elected, and their people tip the scales in their favor. Exhibit A: Goldman Sachs. Exhibit B: Halliburton.

  2. I get really tired and dismayed by the level of intellectual dishonesty exhibited by these politically-motivated “studies.” What you leave out is the high level of philanthropic giving to foundations, colleges & universities, and religious institutions in this country that support services for the common good. Also the vast opportunities we provide entrepreneurs to take risks that create jobs and build wealth at all levels–not what you find in Sweden where most people work for the state, and few have any such initiative

    Also left out is the fact that the wealthiest 5% of tax-payers here are responsible for the majority of US income taxes collected; the bottom 50% pay none. Somehow those facts never get considered equally, alongside these emotional appeals for equality of outcomes for everybody!

  3. Oh yes, I’m sure the oppressed masses in America who have to choose between paying their cell phone bill or keeping their plasma tv wish they could enjoy the “fair” standard of living of those in the african bush or hunting and gathering in Paraguay.
    Enough with the class warfare already.

  4. It may not seem fair. But is it fair for someone to work hard for many years and when he reaches a more comfortable style of living the government wants them to pay , not only more taxes but a higher percentage of taxes? I think not. I`m in favor of flat taxes with no loop holes. If you want to donate to charity it`s out of your heart not your tax break. Tax everyone an equal percentage . From the gut who makes a million dollars a day to the one who gets government assistance. I know there`s .more to it than that. But I believe it to be more fair.

  5. Is philanthropy going to improve failing schools and crumbling infrastructure?

    It seems like the people who’ve benefited most from our policies are the super-rich, banks in off-shore tax havens, and the workers in countries to which American jobs have been outsourced. According to the IRS, between ’92 and 2007, the income of the top 400 earners in this country went up 392% while their average tax rate fell by 37%. Is that fair? Also, payroll taxes (Social Sec., Medicare, unemployment insurance) are mostly borne by the bottom 90% of workers, so that the effective tax rate for someone making more than $370,000/year is the same as someone making between $43,000 and $69,000/year. Fair?

    From, “a New York janitor making slightly more than $33,000 a year pays an effective tax rate of nearly 25%. And the effective tax rate for a resident of the Park Avenue building named after [Leona] Helmsley, earning an average of $1.2 million annually? A cool 14.7%.”


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