The human psyche is so obsessed with the idea of fairness. The tendency to seek fairness in all transactions is not an invention of modern man, but the behaviour has been tattooed at a much deeper level by evolutionary process. As you can see in this video, even monkeys are not immune to this tendency. Charlie Munger calls this the Kantian Fairness Tendency, a mental model that combines ideas from philosophy and psychology.
If you look at the monkey’s behaviour in the above video, it’s clear that the reward for performing a task was acceptable to the monkey until he saw that his other monkey friend (I am just making a guess about their friendship; they could have been professional rivals too) is getting a better reward for the same task. Of course, at this point, the first monkey goes berserk. He just can’t believe it. He is boiling with anger. A complete pandemonium follows in his cage.
The theory about human rationality takes the view that people would accept any offer made to them as long as they were better off. But we know that humans are anything but rational and many studies have shown that people will reject offers they view as unfair.
The basic idea of fairness is that we have devised certain rules that, when followed by everyone, result in a pretty smooth life for all involved. The key is that everyone needs to follow along. This unsaid understanding about ‘following along’ few ‘socially acceptable guidelines for conduct’ is what constructs the framework for fairness.
When a behaviour doesn’t fall (or doesn’t seem to fall) in this framework, we label it as unfair. From Charlie’s talk, it’s not entirely clear why he has used the word Kantian but let me still take a stab at it. The word refers to the philosophical framework created by eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kant’s ethics are founded on his view of rationality as the ultimate good and his belief that all people are fundamentally rational beings. (Source: Wikipedia) According to Kant, an individual’s rights and duties are the foundation for defining morality and fairness. Passing a judgment on ‘what is fair’ seems pretty simple when you are the subject matter i.e., when you are evaluating the fairness in matters involving you.
As usual, Charlie Munger has some insights to deal with such situations. He has spoken about man’s over love of fairness in his UCSB talk. He said –
It is not always recognized that, to function best, morality should sometimes appear unfair, like most worldly outcomes. The craving for perfect fairness causes a lot of terrible problems in system function. Some systems should be made deliberately unfair to individuals because they’ll be fairer on average for all of us. I frequently cite the example of having your career over, in the Navy, if your ship goes aground, even if it wasn’t your fault. I say the lack of justice for the one guy that wasn’t at fault is way more than made up by a greater justice for everybody when every captain of a ship always sweats blood to make sure the ship doesn’t go aground. Tolerating a little unfairness to some to get a greater fairness for all is a model I recommend to all of you. But again, I wouldn’t put it in your assigned college work if you want to be graded well, particularly in a modern law school wherein there is usually an over-love of fairness-seeking process.
Looking at the idea of fairness in isolation is akin to saying that a surgeon should refuse to operate on a patient because it will cause pain to him. Of course, an operation will cause pain (after the anesthesia wears out) and few days of inconvenience, but eventually it will prove to be a beneficial act for the patient.
So, may be, seeking fairness isn’t always wrong. What you have to know is – at what level are you seeking fairness? At an individual level, or at a group level, or at some other level altogether. Answering that question would bring some clarity on what is fair and what isn’t.
Life isn’t fair, but many can’t accept this. Tolerating a little unfairness should be okay if it means a greater fairness for all. But ‘what is truly fair for all’ isn’t an easy question to answer.