What’s Fair?

Posted by jlubans on February 13, 2013

20130213-Greek runners.jpeg
Caption: Amphora depicting three long-distance runners.

A few months back there was a story in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, with the sub-title: “Vitoria-based athlete Iván Fernández Anaya refused to take advantage when his rival stopped short of the finishing line in a cross-country race.”
In brief, Mr. Anaya’s opponent , the Kenyan Abel Mutai , was well ahead near the finish of the race. Coming into the finish gate, he slowed down to a near stop, possibly confused by the finish line arrangement. Anaya, a distant second, drew up on the leader and noted his confusion. But, instead of brushing past and winning, Anaya helped Matai – through words and gestures – cross the finish line and claim his win. For many in the media this was a “man bites dog” story, attracting comments and observations from all over. Most adopted the view that we need more of what Anaya did. However, Anaya’s coach was not happy with his runner’s decision: "The gesture has made him a better person but not a better athlete. He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win."
While the coach was dismayed, Mr. Anaya was not. He did what he thought was fair. Now, to me, that is the point. One person deciding it would be unfair to take advantage of another. In spite of the negatives that dominate the media, humans possess a quintessential sense of fairness and kindness. That belief in fairness differentiates the vast majority from a minority of coeval cave man survivors, ones who will go to any extreme to win, to be top dog - with apologies to Apollonian canines everywhere. Sticking with the sports metaphor, this atavism (and its ready reciprocation) is on display in the jabbing, slashing , spiking, tripping, and bumping that go on during the bunched starts of many European track races.

Centuries ago, Adam Smith* alluded to what he saw as man’s instinctual sympathy:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
Smith drew his conclusions from everyday occurrences, like when I hold a door to let another person pass through or when someone stops to offer sympathy to a crying child. Of course, there is nothing absolute about humans nor was it ever Smith’s intention (as many too often presume) to suggest there was. I’ve seen numerous acts of boorishness, outright rudeness – even cruelty - in which selfishness dominates, like littering or not giving way on the sidewalk or highway or stealing a mobile phone. Some days the milk of human kindness flows like tree-sap in springtime and other times, the well of compassion is bone-dry.

Anya's decision to do what's fair reminded me of my previous essay on the women’s softball team in which the opposing team carried an injured player around the bases.
There was a similar reaction to that story: incredulity, since winning is all-important. Yet, there came unstinted applause from most quarters because of the “fairness” of what those players did.
Playing to an opponent’s weakness has little to do with fairness or what’s right or wrong. Instead, that’s the tactical, thinking side of sport. When I ran track, I’d go out and run like hell from start to finish. Some strategy! I never much liked it when someone in the back kicked past me as my leaden legs froze up. Still, I admire greatly the required discipline to run in third or fourth place, hold back some energy and then kick to the win. As a spectator, I’m on my feet cheering the guy on.
What I call the “thinking runner” is usually not the guy that jabs his elbow, in passing, into an opponent’s ribs – that’s done to gain an unfair advantage. That happened to me in a prep-school cross-country run through fields and forests in western Massachusetts. Walter Mitty-like I replay that event and sprint after the miscreant (probably now a Fortune 500 CEO or B. Madoff’s cell mate) and, à la Clint Eastwood, knock the bastard down and give him a couple juicy ones to the face. No doubt, I’d be ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct. Yet, my fantasy is largely congruent with the ire most of us feel when we encounter unfairness.

This week, the students in my Democratic Workplace class are reading a survey article about human fairness. According to evolutionary theorists and researchers it is our inherent belief in what’s fair that has helped us evolve and survive. It is “the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”
When we discuss that reading I’d like for the students to think about human cooperation and organizational structures. What kind of structure is more in keeping with our inclinations toward fairness and kindness?

* Knud Haakonssen edited one of many editions of Adam Smith’s 1759 work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in 2002 for Cambridge University Press.

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