If fairness is innate, how do you explain opportunism?


In this blog, I’ve argued that fairness is innate in humans and other social animals such as Capuchin monkeys. But if that’s the case, how do we account for greed, selfishness, and opportunism, especially when it doesn’t serve the individual’s long-term self-interest?

For example, consider a group of commercial fishermen from the same community fishing the same large lake. If individuals were always truly and innately fair, I think that these fishermen would take their own proportionate share of the sustainable output of fish each year or season. Yet we know from experience that this doesn’t just automatically happen. In many places, fisheries have been over-fished in direct conflict with fisherman’s long-term self interest.

I can think of three possible explanations for apparently unfair behavior:

  • People are simply bad. Maybe fairness isn’t innate, or isn’t that strong compared to greed, selfishness, and opportunism. I’ll concede that some people are bad actors, but I’m not going to surrender my premise about fairness. I can acknowledge this possible explanation, but I don’t like it.
  • Bad or missing information to determine fairness. In the case of the Capuchin monkeys, one monkey clearly saw the other monkey receiving a disproportionate payment. The case was clear. But what if it’s not clear? In the case of our commercial fishery, what if one captain has no way of knowing how many fish other captains are taking? There, it’s hard to judge fairness. Without information, one is left to assume that others are taking as much as they want. If that’s the assumption, or the fact, then it seems only fair that everyone take as much as they want.
  • Survival instinct overrides fairness. I’ve talked about fairness as a survival mechanism for groups. Fairness may be innate, but I don’t know that altruism is. When faced with a choice between personal survival and fairness towards others, we’re not surprised when people choose survival. In the example of our commercial fishery, if the fish population is dwindling and a captain feels his economic survival is at stake, then the choice to take as much as possible can easily override any sense of fairness towards others.

In our modern media world, we receive a distorted image of how everyone else is fairing. Life in advertising and entertainment seems much more lavish than reality. For some, that disparity can start to feel like unfairness.

Through income inequality, many can feel like their survival is at stake while others possess a disproportionately, and probably unnecessarily, large amount of resources. Survival can make unfairness a rational choice.

Maybe by increasing information and transparency, and decreasing income inequality, we can encourage more fairness. What information would help you feel a sense of fairness in your life?

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