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How To Be Fair ...and Why

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

These men ask for just the same thing, fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have. - Abraham Lincoln

The grandkids are yelling out those dreaded words. “That’s not fair!”

I feel I must jump into the fray. Yet I can feel a part of me that wants to stifle the protests and synchronized shrieks of those little imps who are breaking the peace of our forest sanctuary.

This constant vigilance, stress, and emotion over what’s fair strikes me as hugely annoying …AND deeply important to address if we want to live the good life.

This struggle to work out what’s fair seems to have started loooooong ago. Researchers like Dr. Donald Pfaff, author of The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (usually) Follow The Golden Rule, say our concern about fairness is hard-wired into our brains. Anthropologists like Edward Wilson theorizes that groups who were composed of people who were smarter and fairer tended to prevail over those who were less so. The Greeks and Romans so prized fairness that they clothed her in a stola, gave her scales, and made her a goddess.

But what is fairness, how do we think about it? Some psychologists have said that fairness is a moral judgment, it is the process by which we determine what is morally right and what is morally wrong. They mention the concern for others, treating others with kindness, making sure that others get their share of resources.

That sounds very deep and philosophical. Yet young kids have a strong sense of fairness and an attraction to people who are deemed fair early on, even as babies, experiments show. Children who are viewed as fair are the most popular with their schoolmates. They are most often chosen as leaders.

Some think fairness is about equality or equal access to resources. Others think fairness is more about proportionality, that is, you get the harvest of your labors OR not.

In the second letter to the Thessalonians, a book in the Christian Bible, attributed to the apostle Paul, a passage has been translated: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” It was this very passage evidently that led John Smith, colonial leader of Jamestown, to utter the “no work, no food” aphorism.

However, for some, including other primates, it may be all about equality. In one of the funniest as well as provocative research videos I have ever seen, primatologist, Frans de Waal, shows capuchin monkeys’ take on fairness (you can find it on by searching fairness and monkeys).

Capuchin monkey like cucumbers, but they LOVE grapes. In these studies on fairness, monkeys are given cucumbers after they “do their work” which is to give a rock to the researcher. All goes well until one monkey is given a grape and the other is given a cucumber for the same work. The one who had happily received a cucumber earlier; now howls and shrieks, stomps around and slaps his cage, and tosses the cucumber back at the researcher.

To wrap that all up, fairness may be something we are innately concerned about (even animals) especially if we are the ones not getting the grapes. However, what’s fair can be seen in different ways. That is where is gets sticky and complex. Despite the challenges, working cooperatively toward fairness is worth it. Researchers tell us that when people feel their family, their workplace, their society is fair; they are happier, they relate better to each other. There is less violence and aggression.

So what steps can we take to become fairer? Here are some suggestions:

1. Be an includer. We all have easy ways of including others in discussion and activities. We can look for those who are left out and invite them in by asking them their opinions.

2. Notice who is getting the cucumbers and who is getting the grapes. Appeal to people’s sense of fairness. One of the most moving video clips I have ever seen was taken during the sixties. It is of a young girl of color sweetly asking the mayor of Nashville, Tennessee a question. Looking up into his eyes with an innocent sounding voice she asks something like, “Mayor do you think it’s fair that ‘negroes’ are not allowed to sit at the lunch counters?” The Southern mayor takes a breath, looks down at her and replies, “No, I don’t.” Within the month negotiations and meetings had taken place and African Americans were being served.

3. Become more educated on different ways of viewing fairness. You are on the right track if you read this article. Stay alert for other articles and books like The Neuroscience of Fair Play. Be open to discussions and hearing how others view fairness.

4. And most of all, honor the innate drive for fairness exhausting as it can be. We can practice shifting how we view complaints about unfairness. We can take a breath, listen to grievances. We can seek to understand how others view the world, search for underlying issues, and re-balance the fairness scales if need be.

How might we Journey to The Good Life by becoming more fair?


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