What is Fair? A Cultural Perspective

Two people's hands are seen holding each end of a paper that says, "Unity? Truth?"

In an excellent post for our Science on Google+ community, Cheryl Ann MacDonald details three concepts central to the idea of fairness: social justice; personal freedom; and equal opportunity of outcome. (Make sure you watch the video at the end on the moral behaviour of animals!) I wanted to elaborate on some of the cultural variations of fairness.

Psychology Professor Jessica Sommerville’s research is intriguing. She looks at how babies react to fairness issues when they notice someone is the same “race” as them. Children will gravitate towards people who look like them, even if others have exhibited more equitable sharing behaviour. I see this shows how children learn to associate pro-social behaviour with people who remind them of their caregivers. To put it another way, babies learn to see the behaviour of people like themselves as being fair, even if they see outsiders being more fair and equal. This goes to the heart of positive stereotypes (“our” group is really kind!), and learned bias (“our” group is more fair than others).

There was also great New York Times article by Professor Paul Bloom on how babies learn about morality. He’s argued that babies are “hard-wired” to be moral, but of course socialisation matters. We know this because different cultures look at ideas of fairness in very distinct ways. Let’s start by looking at interpersonal ideas of what it means to be “fair.”

Cultural Variations

In Western nations, a 50-50 split is idealised as fair, where the fairest outcome is one where I get the same amount as you. In other societies, however, fairness is acted out differently. Anthropologist turned psychologist Joe Henrich studied how strangers divide $100 between them. In his experiments, one person makes a monetary offer and the other person can refuse it if they think the amount is too low. If they refuse, however, neither person gets any money. So most Americans tend to favour an even split; but if given a low offer, they are also more likely to reject the amount altogether to punish the other person.

Other societies find this whole notion odd and more readily take a small amount rather than punish someone else for being selfish.  

The idea of fair meaning an “equal” share also varies when we look at societal practices.


At the social level, Western democratic values about fairness are different from, say, Scandinavian social democracies. In Western societies, “negative solidarity” is a better way to describe cultural norms about fairness. For example, this is why we see public debates about public spending, such as the routine complaint in the UK: “why should public sector workers have better pensions than private sector workers?”  

Extending this logic, some people feel that social welfare programs, affirmative action laws and other similar services which support disadvantaged groups are unfair. For example: “Why should tax-payers help the poor? We work hard for our money! They should work harder to get what they need!”

The Western notion of fairness feeds into the cultural myth of meritocracy. This is the idea that if we work hard, we all have an equal chance of enjoying fair outcomes. This view, of course, denies the reality of what sociologists call life chances. These are social benefits and disadvantages that we’re born into by virtue of our socio-economic background.

Institutional disadvantages maintain inequality. We don’t all start off from the same point, so the idea that we should all be treated fairly is hard to achieve without social intervention.

This is something we should teach children when we tell them about fairness.