Andreas Kluth: Fairness is in the eye of the beholder. So be tolerant

By Andreas Kluth

When exactly is something either fair or unfair? Whether the topic is taxation, pay and bonuses, government benefits, crime and punishment, or almost anything else, we just can’t seem to agree.

The reason, it turns out, is that our intuitions about these matters are shaped not only by culture and upbringing but also by our individual natures. Fairness isn’t an objective standard but a subjective cocktail of what social scientists call norms; and people embrace or reject these norms according to unique personality traits. That’s the upshot of new research by Milan Andrejevic, Luke Smillie, Daniel Feuerriegel, William Turner, Simon Laham and Stefan Bode at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia.

To psychologists, personality is defined as a mixture of five traits: relative extroversion or introversion, openness to new ideas and experiences, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism (that is, a proclivity toward anxiety, crankiness and other negative emotions). That personality influences notions of fairness shouldn’t be surprising. Previous research has already shown that it shapes our feelings about authority, loyalty, purity and much else — even our resilience when coping with lockdowns or other setbacks.

Perceptions of fairness break down into competing values. The norm of equality, for example, says that when people share, everyone should get the same. The norm of equity suggests that people should get what they deserve. That of reciprocity implies that they should receive roughly what they’ve given. That of generosity sees virtue in being more forthcoming than necessary, and so on.

Self-interest prejudices our minds as we tussle with these norms. For instance, whether we consider the marginal tax rate fair usually depends at least in part on the tax bracket we find ourselves in. But Andrejevic and his team were interested in the role of personality in shaping our sense of fairness — without the intrusion of self-interest.

So they designed a game. In round one, Person A was given $10 and told to share it with Person B. In round two, Person A became the receiver, and somebody else, Person C, decided how to share $10. Moreover, C was first told how A had shared in the first round.

An audience — members of which had taken personality tests — then judged how fair the sharing was. With no skin in the game, they could be assumed to be free of self-interest. They were then asked twice how moral an offer by C to A was — once before knowing how A had shared in round one, and again after being told. The judgments varied widely, but a pattern showed up.

Of the five traits, neuroticism played no noticeable role. But the other four did.

People who were more agreeable — trusting, helpful and kind — became especially indignant when they observed somebody sharing selfishly, by keeping $8, say, and giving away only $2. So were those who were more extroverted, open or conscientious. The same people were especially forthcoming with praise when they saw somebody sharing generously.

The same traits — agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness and openness — also predicted how the audience reacted to information about how selfishly, equitably or generously A had shared when he was the giver in the first round. People with these attributes were especially impressed with generosity shown to proven misers, and scathing about stinginess toward somebody they deemed magnanimous.

Now, extrapolate from this how our personality differences influence the thousands of other decisions we make, individually or collectively. Who should inherit how much wealth? Who should be incarcerated for which crime and how long? Who should be rewarded and feted for which achievement and how much?

An extrovert and an introvert, or a conscientious and a disorganized person, will probably disagree on these matters; as will somebody with an open and curious mind and somebody else who’s a bit more reluctant to try new things. It’s not yet clear why these traits should lead to different sensibilities. But it’s clear that they do.

The real insight here is that none of us has dibs on moral authority, so it behooves all of us to keep listening to one another, patiently and tolerantly. Because we’re different, we’ll never agree on what’s fair. We’re destined to keep arguing about and searching for justice forever.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.


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