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the Friend INDEPENDENT QUAKER JOURNALISM SINCE 1843
CONTENTS VOL 169 NO 50 3 Thought for the Week: Fairness Malcolm Edwards 4-5 News 6 Meeting for Sufferings: Changes at The Retreat Ian Kirk-Smith 7 Being Salt and Light Mike Glover 8-9 Letters 10-11 My life, my faith Rachel Rees 12 Going green at Swarthmoor Alan Headech 13 Books: Making change happen Symon Hill 14 The Spirit: alternative views Julian Brotherton 15 End of the roses, Quaker Meeting Susan Vickerman 16 Christmas greetings 17 Friends & Meetings
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Protester at Occupy Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA
Though force can protect in an emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.
Dwight Daivd Eisenhower
Cover image: Glenthorne Quaker Centre and Guest House. Photo: Adrian Rose. See page 6.
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the Friend, 16 December 2011 Fairness
Thought for the Week
We have heard a lot about fairness recently. Is it fair for bankers to be rewarded with millions of pounds every year? Are the government cuts affecting everyone fairly? What do we really mean by fairness? Where do our ideas of fairness come from?
Several years ago two capuchin monkeys were each given a pebble and trained to return this to the experimenter – who exchanged it for a slice of cucumber. The two monkeys soon learned to return the pebble repeatedly until they had had enough. Then the experimenter changed the reward for one monkey, who was given a grape (a favourite food), while the other still received cucumber. The one with the grape continued exactly as before, but the monkey receiving the cucumber soon lost interest or became agitated and threw the pebble away. It was not ‘fair’ that his mate got a better reward. Children behave in the same way: ‘Mary’s got a bigger piece of cake than me, it’s not fair’. In neither case did the monkey who received the grape or Mary with the larger slice of cake offer to share it with their companion. So ‘fairness’ can be selfish and may also involve envy.
Are we upset at bankers (or pop stars, footballers and directors of big corporations) receiving huge salaries because we feel we are just as worthy as them? Or is the problem simply that the differential is too large? The government claims that its cuts are ‘fair’ because they affect everyone, but of course they have a far more profound effect on the poor – who see the wealthy continuing with their extravagant lifestyles.
Apes, however, are smarter than monkeys: when a bonobo was given several goodies in sight of her companions, she ate a few and then refused any more, gesturing towards her companions who were looking on but separated from her by a cage. Only when they had been given some reward did she return to finish her own. Why was she smarter? Because she realised that when she returned to her companions they would remember that she had taken all the goodies herself and not given them any, so they would give her a hard time. Bonobos and chimpanzees normally share food within their group, though not necessarily with everyone.
In another experiment, pairs of capuchins or chimpanzees were given a choice of pressing one of two buttons to get a reward. The first button simply gave them a piece of cucumber, the second button gave both them and their companion pieces of cucumber. Almost every time they pressed the second button. They were, at least to some extent, caring for their partner. Only if the partner was a complete stranger did the balance tip towards pressing the selfish button.
So, our own ideas of fairness are not a peculiarly human characteristic: they are something inherited and modified through our evolutionary ancestry. Indeed, there is evidence of fairness in other social animals besides primates, including elephants and wolves. Our own domestic wolf (the dog) can easily be trained to shake hands (or paws) with people. Dogs will do this either with or without a reward; however, if one of a pair of dogs is given a reward while his partner gets nothing, the luckless animal shows disturbed behaviour: he may stop raising his paw or turn away and lower his tail, all signs of stress.
Fairness then has a selfish component: others should not be getting special treatment while I am not. But it also has a social component in that it pays to be nice to your companions so as to bond the group together. This leads to generosity towards friends and neighbours, not just to family. In modern society our ‘group’ has expanded from a dozen or so hunters or foragers to hundreds of people; indeed, following Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan it can be extended to include the whole world.
For more on fairness among animals see The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal (2009).
the Friend, 16 December 2011