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Social Fairness

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

An essential part of morality involves determining what is “right” or “fair” in social interaction. We want things to be fair, we try to be fair ourselves, and we react negatively when we see things that are unfair. And we determine what is or is not fair by relying on another set of social norms, appropriately called social fairness norms, which are beliefs about how people should be treated fairly (Tyler & Lind, 2001; Tyler & Smith, 1998).

The preference for fairness has been proposed to be a basic human impulse (Tyler & Blader, 2000), and when we perceive unfairness, we also experience negative emotional responses in brain regions associated with reward and punishment (Tabibnia, Satpute, & Lieberman, 2008). The experience of unfairness is associated with negative emotions, including anger and contempt, whereas fairness is associated with positive emotions.

One type of social fairness, known as distributive fairness, refers to our judgments about whether or not a party is receiving a fair share of the available rewards. Distributive fairness is based on our perceptions of equity—the belief that we should each receive for our work a share proportionate to our contributions. If two people work equally hard on a project, they should get the same grade on it. But if one works harder than the other, then the more hardworking partner should get a better grade. Things seem fair and just when we see that these balances are occurring, but they seem unfair and unjust when they do not seem to be.

A second type of fairness doesn’t involve the outcomes of the work itself but rather our perceptions of the methods used to assign those outcomes. Procedural fairness refers to beliefs about the fairness (or unfairness) of the procedures used to distribute available rewards among parties (Schroeder, Steele, Woodell, & Bernbenek, 2003). Procedural fairness (Figure 12.3) is important because in some cases we may not know what the outcomes are, but we may nevertheless feel that things are fair because we believe that the process used to determine the outcomes is fair. For instance, we may not know how much tax other people are paying, but we feel that the system itself is fair, and thus most of us endorse the idea of paying taxes. We do so not only out of respect for the laws that require us to but also because the procedure seems right and proper, part of the social structure of our society.

Figure 12.3 Procedural Fairness 
People are happier at work, at school, and in other aspects of their everyday lives when they feel that they and others are treated fairly. 

We believe in the importance of fairness in part because if we did not, then we would be forced to accept the fact that life is unpredictable and that negative things can occur to us at any time. Believing in fairness allows us to feel better because we can believe that we get what we deserve and deserve what we get. These beliefs allow us to maintain control over our worlds. To believe that those who work hard are not rewarded and that accidents happen to good people forces us to concede that we too are vulnerable.

Because we believe so strongly in fairness, and yet the world is not always just, we may distort our perceptions of the world to allow us to see it as more fair than it really is. One way to create a “just world” is to reinterpret behaviors and outcomes so that the events seem to be fair. Indeed Melvin Lerner and his colleagues (Lerner, 1980) found one way that people do this is by blaming the victim: interpreting the negative outcomes that occur to others internally so that it seems that they deserved them. When we see that bad things have happened to other people, we tend to blame the people for them, even if they are not at fault. Thus we may believe that poor people deserve to be poor because they are lazy, that crime victims deserve to be victims because they were careless, and that people with AIDS deserve their illness. In fact, the more threatened we feel by an apparent unfairness, the greater is our need to protect ourselves from the dreadful implication that it could happen to us, and the more we disparage the victim.