There’s a difference between morals and fairness

Many become confused when considering right and wrong and a sense of fairness. One eminent economist thinks that they stem from the same source — he calls it our herd instinct — and has said so in a book I’m currently reading. It has never occurred to him that countries can be at war — despising each other’s morals — and yet still be trading — treating each other fairly.

Morals and fairness are quite different. The first is the cause of so much of the belligerence that we often inflict on other cultures or they upon us. Our set of moral values can be quite different from those of another group, or region, or culture, or country. Sometimes, if we fall out with another culture we call it ‘evil’ or ‘savage’ or ‘criminal’ even though we may have acted similarly in times past in other situations.

Almost all of our sense of right and wrong has been taught to us, or absorbed by us, when children in the culture which we were raise in.  Even when considering other cultures we are reasonably friendly with — such as the French and us — we often find small differences to laugh about or characterise as ridiculous.

What is excluded from our culturally-derived set of morals is a deeper sense of fairness.  We know it is deeper because carefully designed experiments have shown that a few other ‘higher’ species besides ourselves also have a notion of fairness.  Fairness doesn’t have to be taught to us when children. It reveals itself from the age of about three years onwards.

A sense of fairness is the basis of all our relationships and transactions with other people — that is, with other people one at a time — whether a married partner or a business colleague or a retailer we buy products from.  European sea merchants of the 16th century could never have done deals with the different cultures of a myriad Asian island tribes they’d never met before unless a sense of fairness operated in the minds of both parties each time.

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