Learning What’s Fair

We’re social animals. More so than other primates, our biology is highly adapted to live with and learn from other humans. We have innate capacities to cooperate, empathize, and imitate. These are capacities that emerge when we’re children, that we develop in adolescence, and continue to develop as adults.

Of course, this is very much in conflict with our dominant ideology of competition, material success, and possessive self-interest. Even pursuits in the realm of cooperation and empathy have been infected, so that we have social capital as a field of study and social entrepreneurship as an occupation. It is an ideology for a world of inequalities that are the inevitable result of differences in effort, skill, desire, effectiveness, and social position. Empathy and our other capacities as social beings enter as an afterthought—what we do after we’ve made sure we’ve got ours.

It is now widely recognized in many disciplines that fairness is a fundamental human concern. However, the urge for fairness is one thing; what’s fair in practice is quite another. It’s something we have to learn. And, of course, what’s fair is deeply affected by the dominant ideology. So I was intrigued by the title of a recent article in Science magazine: “Fairness and the Development of Inequality Acceptance.”

The research, conducted in Norway, engaged young people between the ages of 10 and 18 years in a game that had two parts. In the first part, each young person earned points by performing a set of tasks. In the second part, the young people were put into pairs and, using a method for assigning money values to the points, one person decided how much of the total the other person would get.

On average, the person who decided how to split the earnings gave the other person about 45% of the total. If that surprises you, think about the dominant ideology and its effect on your expectations.

The researchers also found that the older subjects were affected more strongly in their decision by their partner’s success in earning points. The conclusion the researchers draw is that as adolescents mature, they weigh their sense of another person’s success more heavily in deciding what’s fair. Think of merit pay and the deserving poor.

Where did these young people learn that they should weigh another person’s success in deciding what’s fair? To put it more plainly, why does someone who scores more points deserve more of the collective take?

The answer is that, in our culture, we’re taught in very many ways from a very young age that “more points” means “deserves more” and so it’s fair that those with more get more. I emphasize here that this isn’t about teaching values. It’s about learning how the world works. It’s about learning the rules of the game.

Could it be otherwise? Yes.

The psychologist Peter Gray has written about hunter-gatherer societies, their social organization, how hunting and gathering are accomplished, and how children learn. His objective is to inform our own practices from the perspective of hunter-gatherer practices. After all, he observes, hunter-gatherer practices enabled humans to adapt and thrive in a wide variety ecological niches over hundreds of thousands of years.

With regard to how children learn, Dr. Gray observes that, for the most part, adults are not involved in children’s education. Younger children learn from older children and from their own acts of exploration and discovery. When they want to know how adults do things, they hang around the adults. This goes on until the late teens or early twenties, at which point the young person decides to join in hunting or gathering.

The child’s education has included both learning practical skills and social skills. His or her education has prepared the child to participate as an adult in a society that is radically egalitarian, where coercion is virtually unknown, where decision-making is by consensus, and where there is no inequality of power—although there are leaders and authorities whose social position has nothing to do with how many points they score.

To our modern sensibilities, this sounds like complete anarchy—which I suppose it is. This is the educational system that enabled humans to succeed over most of our species’ existence. It’s an educational system to which we are biologically adapted. And if you think that such a system would be impossible today, think again.

Dr. Gray discusses the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts as being like a hunter-gatherer band. There are no teachers—but there are 10 adult staff members. They serve as resources and authorities available for the student’s self-directed learning needs. There are 200 students of mixed age. The older students work with younger students. All students follow their noses in exploration and discovery. Staff member contracts are renewed each year by a vote of the students.

The school has been in operation for 40 years. There are others in its network throughout the United States and the world.

What does this have to do with your health?

What’s a fair way for people to get medical care?

What’s a fair way to protect people from physical and social exposures that might harm them?

What’s a fair way to make sure that each person has a good life?

We learn the answers to these questions from a very young age. One version, the one that dominates us, is to be found through No Child Left Behind. The hunter-gatherer version, the one for which we are biologically adapted, will be found in places such as Sudbury Valley.