Fairness Judgments: Genuine Morality or Disguised Egocentrism?

When people think about fairness, they often think about social norms and values, or about general moral principles such as equality between humans and impartiality when solving conflicts. Fairness is thus often associated with a genuine concern for other people's well-being. In a variety of scientific disciplines, fairness is even equated with altruism and contrasted with egoism (e.g., De Waal, 1996; Sober & Wilson, 1998).

But is it really appropriate to make such a sharp distinction between fairness and egoism, or to have such a benign perspective on fairness in the first place? Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, and hence, what people believe to be fair may very well depend on what people want to believe to be fair. It is therefore likely that when confronted with a social problem, people have the tendency to evaluate those solutions as fair that happen to benefit the self. As a thought experiment, imagine an important soccer match between two competing teams, Team A and Team B. Following a tackle by a Team B player, the referee gives a controversial penalty to Team A. In situations of this sort, players and supporters of Team A are likely to interpret the fairness of the situation differently than players and supporters of Team B. Team A members are more likely to believe that the tackle was a severe offense and that the subsequent penalty was fair. Team B members, however, are more likely to believe that the tackle was a relatively minor offense and that the subsequent penalty was unfair. This thought experiment illustrates how fairness judgments may be shaped by egocentrism: The team that benefited from the referees' decision believed that the decision was fair, but the team that was harmed by the referees' decision believed that the decision was unfair.

A plausible reason why fairness judgments often are egocentric judgments can be found in the way people perceive the social situations that they encounter. Research suggested that people have an almost natural egocentric perception of the surrounding social world. This is inevitable, as we effortlessly see the world through our own eyes, but we can only imagine what the world looks like through the eyes of someone else. Thus, people experience their own perspective, but they need to infer the perspective of someone else (Caruso, Epley, & Bazerman, 2006). This inescapable egocentrism in human perception has notable consequences for people's fairness judgments. It has been argued and found by social psychologists that fairness judgments are mostly based on how people feel about a situation: People intuitively feel good or bad about a situation, and based on this moral sentiment, people conclude whether or not a given situation is fair or unfair (Haidt, 2001). When the insight that human perception essentially is egocentric is combined with the insight that fairness judgments are based on how one feels about a situation, it follows that people’s fairness judgments are based on the extent to which people experience a particular situation as good or bad for themselves (Epley & Caruso, 2002).

In the following, I illuminate the role of egocentrism in fairness judgments by focusing on two moral dilemmas that are very common in everyday life. The first dilemma is how to distribute valuable resources, like money, goods, or services. Whenever such resources are distributed, people make an evaluation of whether they received a fair share in the distribution. Such fairness evaluations of resource distributions are referred to as  distributive fairness judgments. The second dilemma to be discussed here is what procedures authorities should use to make complex decisions that affect the lives of other people. During these decision-making processes, people often make fairness judgments by evaluating, for instance, the accuracy of the process, the extent to which decision-makers are objective, and the extent to which the people that will be affected by the decision are listened to. These fairness evaluations of decision-making procedures are referred to as procedural justice judgments.

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