2019-01-14 concepts

Fairness, rule-breaking

Hey all -

I received several thought-provoking responses from the last newsletter, so this newsletter will further expand on those topics. These aren’t mental models per se, but instead are hopefully interesting ways of viewing certain ideas you’re already well familiar with.

+ what I learned or rediscovered recently

* Fairness

Last time, I wrote that the just-world phenomenon “stems from a fundamental human desire to believe in an orderly, cause-and-effect driven world.” We want to know that our actions have consequences, and more importantly, that those consequences are fair and appropriate given our actions.

If you go to work every day, you expect a regular paycheck. That is fair. If you go to work every day, but suddenly the paychecks stop coming in, that is not fair. Fairness is intrinsically tied to what is deserved, and what is deserved depends on our expectations of the way the world works. In this case, that you deserve to be paid for work performed.

We have many expectations about the way the world works. We expect, for example, that people in society follow the laws. We expect that all people are created equal, and therefore deserve equal rights. We expect that if you promise to do something, you won’t later renege on it. When these expectations are violated - when we see corruption or exploitation or dishonesty - that is unfair.

Unfair behavior, then, undermines the ways in which we make sense of the world. Absent these fundamental beliefs, there is no “right” way to behave.

Imagine if, every day of the year, you went out foraging for food and, every day of the year, you successfully found food. Next year, you do the same exact thing, but this time, suddenly, no food. There is something deeply unsettling here, a sort of cosmic unfairness. The model you built in your head for finding food no longer works. There is no clear “right” thing to do: What now?

Fairness tells us that our expectations of the world still work. When things are unfair, the world is not working the way it is supposed to.

Often, discussions of fairness feel remote and academic, narrowly confined to fields like economics or politics or sociology. But I think it’s far more fundamental - fairness is tied to our need to believe that our explanations about the world still work.


* Rule-breaking

As I mentioned above, we need explanations of the world. Models, systems, rules and frameworks describe how the world works, and prescribe how it ought to work. We have political and economic explanations, physical explanations and societal ones. These explanations structure our world; they create order and predictability.

We need explanations of the world, unless of course, they are wrong. If you carry the belief that you can heal all your physical ailments simply with the power of your mind, you are (probably) in for a bad time. Our explanations of the world must be tied to the real world.

It’s the people who break the rules, who challenge the systems, who envision a different world that “keep us honest.” They test, validate, threaten and overturn our models of the world. When they succeed, like Copernicus or Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King, they’re lauded as innovators, visionaries and heroes. When they fail, they’re dismissed as quacks, criminals and heretics.

In both cases, rule breakers necessarily introduce disorder and unpredictability into our understanding of the world. Almost invariably, these challenges to the status quo are resisted at first. And sometimes they are plainly misguided.

But without these tests to our beliefs, our models of the world may become obsolete, inaccurate and even oppressive - such as with slavery. These pangs of disorder, however uncomfortable and threatening, keep us tied to reality.


+ parting thoughts

A few people responded that, when thinking about fairness, we have a special ability to “choose” or “reframe” what is deserving.

For example, it is normally fair you get paid for work you do - unless of course you are an unpaid intern, in which case you get paid in experience. Or unless you are working with some authority figure or celebrity, in which case you may get paid in exposure.

These may be entirely fair forms of compensation. Or not! It all depends on our expectations and beliefs about how the world should work. If you change the reasoning, so too changes how fair something is.

Fairness then is not governed by some immutable laws of the universe. It’s highly malleable - a function of our and society’s beliefs about how the world does and ought to work.

Thanks for reading,

Alex