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Fairness – we're wired for it

The debate over what’s fair isn’t just political rhetoric. It defines not only our individual interactions but also the very fabric of society.

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The word "fairness" seems to be everywhere in our political dialogue these days.

Is it fair for Wall Street bankers who were bailed out by taxpayers to go back to paying bonuses as usual? Is it fair that government em­ployees have generous fringe benefit packages when most taxpayers don't enjoy similar benefits? Is it fair to reduce taxes for the wealthy while cutting back teacher salaries, Med­icaid, and child nutrition programs to reduce budget deficits? Is it fair to require everyone to buy health insurance? On the other hand, is it fair to ask others to pay the health expenses of those who don't buy insurance?

Generations of cynics have claimed that the idea of fairness is nothing more than a way of obscuring our naked self-interests. However, the emerging, multidisciplinary science of fairness contradicts them. A sense of fairness is in fact an important part of human nature, "outliers" or the Bernie Madoffs excepted.

Fairness varies, involves compromise

There are so many differences of opinion on the subject because fairness is not a formula or recipe. Our sense of fairness is shaped by various cultural influences, the immediate context, and, of course, the lure of our own self-interests. Consider how long the US tolerated slavery and how many generations it took for women to obtain the right to vote.

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