Monday, July 13, 2015

Fair is Fair, But It Depends on Where

Fair Is Not Fair Everywhere 
Marie Schäfer, Daniel Haun & Michael Tomasello
Psychological Science, forthcoming

Abstract: Distributing the spoils of a joint enterprise on the basis of work contribution or relative productivity seems natural to the modern Western mind. But such notions of merit-based distributive justice may be culturally constructed norms that vary with the social and economic structure of a group. In the present research, we showed that children from three different cultures have very different ideas about distributive justice. Whereas children from a modern Western society distributed the spoils of a joint enterprise precisely in proportion to productivity, children from a gerontocratic pastoralist society in Africa did not take merit into account at all. Children from a partially hunter-gatherer, egalitarian African culture distributed the spoils more equally than did the other two cultures, with merit playing only a limited role. This pattern of results suggests that some basic notions of distributive justice are not universal intuitions of the human species but rather culturally constructed behavioral norms.


Oldmanturnip said...

Friedrich Hayek addresses the distinction between these two dynamics at length, in particular in The Fatal Conceit. Specifically, he compared the communal instincts that function well in small groups with the more impersonal dynamics that allow humans to function in the wider world. He called this wider world -- a world of vast numbers of people who don’t and can never know each other, and a world of vast, dispersed knowledge on which we are each utterly dependent in order to get through the day -- the 'extended order'.

The contrast you observe between the group dynamics of the "partially hunter-gatherer" children with those in the modern Western setting validates Hayek's point. Non-merit based distribution is as alive and well in the developed West as it is in traditional African villages. Yes, perhaps, at the margins, the intimate, sharing 'group' in rural Africa could be said to have a greater perimeter than the equivalent sharing group in the West.

However, the vast information needed for modern civilization to function, and the impossibility of individuals interacting with the same group spirit toward strangers as they do to their own family and nonfamily inner circle, makes the sharing sensibility of the hunter gatherer children impractical beyond the small group.

Nice try, but, with all due respect, the behavior your describe displays the existence of the divide between what appears to be your ideal world and the world as it is, and must, for us to live at anything other than a primitive level, always be.

albrt said...

Westerners internalize merit based distribution?

The Western system consists of the bankers getting the spoils, the most productive worker getting a bowl of thin gruel, and everyone else getting a $500 a month bill for Obamacare that does not imply any actual access to health care services.

I guess you could come up with a definition of "merit" that would fit, but why bother?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if specialisation and division of labour in Western societies is an important consideration in this comparision with African societies where specialisation and division of labour is minimal, and indivudals are self-sufficient and not so dependent on one another, with little need to engage in exchange, and do not accumulate wealth?

Comparing apples with oranges?

Incentives matter. In a society whose individuals rely on others to supply their needs and wishes, there has to be an incentive for those others to supply: reciprocity rules, and wealth accumulation ensure the ability to acquire from others in the future.

In a society where individuals are mostly self-reliant, there is little need to incentivise others to supply them. Where needs are met from nature... hunter-gathering... accumulating wealth is no guarantee nature will provide, so why store wealth, live for today?

Pelsmin said...

The impact on society of these divergent views is clear: cultures that value merit and expect the "spoils" to be distributed to those who produced it produce it. Those who don't, don't produce. These tribes may be happy and content (may be) but they're not wondering whether they should increase their food aid to the US, or debating whether we should be given discounted antibiotics from their pharmaceutical industry. There's a reason why the western countries are the more productive ones. The system is superior at encouraging productivity.

Anonymous said...

The findings of the study only suggest that basic notions of distributive justice are culturally constructed rather than genetically determined IF one assumes that all races are genetically identical......a foolish assumption.