If you believe that humans are innately good, than you will probably believe that we have an inborn sensitivity to fairness. And this certainly seems to be the case, when you look at how kids behave around each other from an early age. Take an easy case. There is an ice cream truck stationed at a local park. The ice cream vendor decides to distribute free bombpops to the children gathered around the truck. Except for one child. He gets nothing. This is clearly a fairness issue. Unless the child is allergic to bombpops (which is impossible), he will see the distribution of popsicles as lopsided and unfair. He deserves to be treated equally and justly, but he’s being excluded from the bombpop bonanza for no good reason. But it’s not just children; infants act this way.
But the fact may be that it’s a demotion of social status, more than fairness, that causes the child to feel disadvantaged. The child is not thinking about the ethical importance of distributing bombpops equally; he is thinking about where he stands on the social hierarchy; he is responding to feeling “less than.” This is probably why birthday parties in elementary schools are such freighted affairs; everyone must be invited to prevent the trauma of neglect when only specific children qualify. And this is why every kid gets a trophy in rec leagues; adults want to protect them from the sting of defeat and loss, from the feeling that some kids deserve more, when everyone participated. This may not be good for developing resilience, but it does correspond with a kid’s developmental attitude towards fairness.
But when do kids become sensitive to the ethical dimensions of fairness, when their own self interest isn’t implicated by the unequal distribution of goods? That is, when do students recognize the importance of fairness as a social value? This happens later in adolescence, when kids learn to appreciate group norms, as well as rules and laws. You treat others like you want to be treated; you respect others if you want respect in return. In order to be a part of a classroom, a team, or family, you can’t always get what you want, because other people have needs that differ from yours. If you live in a community, then you have to give up something, to gain the benefits and rights that come with membership.
This development dovetails with advantageous inequity aversion (AI), a fancy sociological term that describes the adverse feeling we get we unjustly benefit more than others. We accrue some unfair advantage, and we experience discomfort. So it’s not that we get less than others; we get more, but we feel uneasy with an advantage that comes to us unfairly.
In this instance, we forsake our own self interest for upholding important community values and democratic norms. Going beyond the popsicle example, an example of this might be the student who alerts his teacher about a grading error on an exam; the teacher mistakenly marked two questions right rather than wrong, giving him the best grade in the class. The student thus acts at the expense of his own self interest, because what is most important is moral behavior, being a good role model, and recognizing the kid who justly received the best grade.
What is most interesting about AI (but not surprising), is that it expresses itself most prominently in societies, cultures, and communities where justice, equality, and fairness hold privileged positions. Here, there is more status to be gained from being a good role model, than simply having more goods. Why? You will be seen as an asset to the society by living up to its norms, and likewise, ignoring those norms comes with moral condemnation.
The other interesting fact about AI, is that we demonstrate more of it when we have better relationships with the people with whom we interact. That is, knowing something about other people increases our commitment and obligations to them as moral individuals who share our same social space, values, rights, etc.
The moral dimension of fairness is thus worth emphasizing in the framework of schools. If a learning environment is merely competitive, and individual accomplishments are valorized over and above qualities of character, than we cannot expect to develop students who care about social values, democratic values, and the common good. At the same time, “qualities of character” is an abstract conception; we must focus first on creating schools that value justice and fairness, where students care about each other, and learn to associate status with virtue, rather than unjust material advantages.