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Fairness, Selfishness, and Natural Human Morality

Submitted by Ken Watts on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 16:39

Are humans selfish by nature, or competitive, or fair?

Suppose you and another person participated in an exercise with two choices: either you receive five dollars, and the other person receives three dollars, or you receive seven dollars and the other person gets nine dollars? And suppose that you get to choose, all by yourself, every time?

We seem to be, as humans, egalitarian by nature.

Dave Munger, at Cognitive Daily, describes an experiment Arthur Kennelly and Edmund Fantino in which subjects were given this kind of choice, with interesting results—the subjects split into roughly three groups.

One group regularly chose to take the lesser amount, so that they got more than the other person. They tried to win, rather than to get as much as possible. This group seemed to be treating the exercise like a game—an interpretation that is supported by the fact that the group was largest when the payoff was only in points, and became negligible when the payoff was in real money.

In the real world (when money was involved) the split was quite different.

When the game was for real, a large group regularly chose to take the greater amount, and thus receive less than the other person. This seems to be the rational response: everyone gets the most, even if the other person gets more than you do.

The interesting group, to me, in the "for real" scenario was the third one—which was also the largest. This group actually chose to alternate—choosing three one time, and seven the next.

The net effect of this strategy was that both participants got the same amount of money, even though the total amount of money was less than they could have received.

The third group valued fairness over profit. They were willing to sacrifice their own profit, as well as the other participant's, in order to make the payoff equal.

Their behavior provides a suggestive peek into the nature of real-world human morality. Fairness is one of the two universal foundations of human morality discovered by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham (the other being a desire to care for others and not to harm them).

It's easy enough to see how "share and share alike" could be a crucial value to a social species, especially a social species that spent most of its evolutionary history in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer groups.

It's also easy to see why authoritarian structures among this same species should have to depend on force in order to survive.

Which leads to some interesting conclusions:

We seem to be, as humans, egalitarian by nature. This puts the lie to the assumption, by conservatives both secular and religious, that humans are selfish by nature. Whatever we are, it seems to be more complicated than that.

It also puts the lie to the idea that we are primarily economic creatures. The largest group in this study chose to forgo more money in order to satisfy a completely different value.

And, finally, it makes you wonder just how stable a human society can be when the distance between rich and poor increases every day.