February 24, 2018

Fairness—does that mean equality or proportionality?

Traditional weighing scalesIn relationships of whatever kind, there’s potential for getting in a muddle over this: By “fair,” do we mean “equal” or do we mean “in proportion?”

This is a key distinction in moral psychology developed in Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”—one that evolved over the course of the work he describes and, by implication, not perhaps so obvious.

Many of us may expect individual rewards to be in proportion to efforts put in or perhaps outcomes achieved, rather than equal shares for everyone, irrespective of contribution (assuming equal opportunity). But not everyone sees it like that necessarily.

Which of these is “right” isn’t central here…

The point is simply remembering “fairness” means different things to different people and our response to whatever we perceive as fair (or lacking fairness) is rather deep-seated, partly innate and unconscious, and so it’s powerful. It has the potential to drive unexpected division.

What do you mean by “fair” when you use the word?

And do the people around you mean that too?

Could be worth clarifying.

If you want change, try fairness

Three people in discussionJoe is angry. He wants change. He cites all the things he doesn’t like about what the other guy is doing… and what he doesn’t like about the other guy, period. He wants upheaval. It’s a sustained attack. It seems overwhelming. Surely one of his points will hit home, and the other guy will crumble. Eventually, Joe stops…

But of course he’s over-stepped the mark. Somewhere in his flow, there was a clear untruth. Once this is pointed out, everything he said is dismissed as the rantings of an extremist. And that includes all the valid and uncomfortable points he made. Business as usual is resumed.

In contrast…

Peter sees precisely where the other side is weak, where they know their actions are out of kilter with their values. He points out accurately and calmly what is wrong and requests a change to address that point alone. The other side have no response. They could try to bluster, but that would only undermine their credibility further—better to accept the need to change and move on.

What’s the principle?

Well, I credit this to Elish Angiolini, former Lord Advocate in Scotland. Interviewed in one of the national newspapers, she said she was very influenced, perhaps oddly, by a well-known TV legal drama, “Rumpole of the Bailey”. She quoted a particular line…

“There is nothing so devastating to the defence as a fair prosecutor.”

So, here’s the thing…

When you hope to stimulate change, a fair case stands a much better chance than an extreme one. The more extreme you are, the more easily you will be picked off. The fairer you are, the harder you will be to resist.

Where might putting a fair case make a difference in your world?