Preference for Fairness

Did you read Jeremy’s article on justice? It’s very good.

One bit reminded me of something else I’d just read. Serendipity kind of thing. This bit reminded me.

If this is right, it does not follow that one cannot account for the existence of retributive feelings. Mackie, for example, employed Darwinian principles in order to explain their ubiquity and persistence. His argument was roughly this: individuals achieved an evolutionary advantage to the extent that resentment of injuries became a deeply ingrained psychological disposition in their personality structures; this disposition was then universalized for broadly sociological reasons, so that certain harms came to be cooperatively resented, which is the mark of retributivism generally.

It reminded me of this article in the New Yorker about the brain and psychology and behavioral economics and neuroeconomics. Especially this bit:

A good way to illustrate Cohen’s point is to imagine that you and a stranger are sitting on a park bench, when an economist approaches and offers both of you ten dollars. He asks the stranger to suggest how the ten dollars should be divided, and he gives you the right to approve or reject the division. If you accept the stranger’s proposal, the money will be divided between you accordingly; if you refuse it, neither of you gets anything. How would you react to this situation, which economists refer to as an “ultimatum game,” because one player effectively gives the other an ultimatum? Game theorists say that you should accept any positive offer you receive, even one as low as a dollar, or you will end up with nothing. But most people reject offers of less than three dollars, and some turn down anything less than five dollars.

See? It’s the same thing. Resentment of injuries, of perceived injustice, trumps economic benefit. I know damn well I’m like that. I’d happily spurn the two or three dollars for the sake of punishing the greedy unfair stranger on the bench. I would probably also pick up a nearby branch or tennis racket and smack the stranger with it then run away.

Cohen and several colleagues organized a series of ultimatum games in which half the players – the respondents – were put in MRI machines…When respondents received stingy offers – two dollars for them, say, and eight dollars for the other player – they exhibited substantially more activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with reasoning, and in the bilateral anterior insula, part of the limbic region that is active when people are angry or in distress. The more activity there was in the limbic structure, the more likely the person was to reject the offer. To the researchers, it looked as though the two regions of the brain might be competing to decide what to do, with the prefrontal cortex wanting to accept the offer and the insula wanting to reject it…Maybe human beings have an intrinsic preference for fairness, and we get angry when that preference is violated—so angry that we punish the other player even at a cost to ourselves. Or perhaps people reject low offers because they don’t want to appear weak.

See? Same thing. It’s interesting. It’s why small children spend all their time measuring the size of each other’s pieces of cake to make sure they’re not getting stiffed – they’re making sure nobody’s dissing them.

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