How Foundational is Fairness?

How foundational is fairness?

A sense of fairness is essential to any relationship built on trust. All relationship-based organizations, and even many rule-based organizations, strive for fairness. W. L. Gore & Associates, for example, lists “fairness” as one of its four core operating principles. “We will try to be fair with each other, our suppliers, our customers and anyone else with whom we do business.” Gore extends its fairness principle explicitly to its compensation system, where the mantra is “externally competitive, internally fair.”

I recently attended the Christian Humanism in Business Conference in Berlin this past October, where the focus of the conference was on the potential of free-market organizations to help address issues of poverty, inequality, and injustice. One of the presenters, Professor Daniel Haun from the University of Leipzig, pointed out that inequality and injustice necessarily implicated a sense of fairness, and he asked the question, how deeply wired is our sense of fairness.

He then described an experiment. Two monkeys sitting in side-by-side cages, fully visible to each other, have been trained to give an experimenter a pebble from inside their cage. The experimenter reciprocates by giving the monkeys a piece of cucumber, which the monkeys eat. The experiment then changes slightly, and after one monkey has received a piece of cucumber in exchange for a pebble, the second monkey receives a grape in exchange for a pebble. As it turns out, monkeys prize grapes considerably more than they prize cucumbers. Here’s a video of what ensues in the experiment. (Do watch the video. I guarantee it will make you laugh out loud.)

So just how foundational is fairness? Or is the issue not about fairness, but envy. (“Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s grape?”) And does this experiment offer any evidence that might suggest reasons why salary information in most organizations is kept confidential?

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