Ugh, is there any more frustrating childhood cliche than "Well, life isn't fair"? When you're trying to tell your mom about something that totally seriously is not fair, like how she loaned your VHS of Beauty and the Beast to the neighbor kid whose parents were getting divorced and then they moved away and now you'll never ever get it back? It's not your fault her parents got divorced! It's not fair! Well, life isn't fair. Mom's right, of course—life definitely isn't fair. Life is arbitrary and shitty, and if we're lucky and careful we can navigate around some of the shitballs and enjoy a few gaps here and there of sparkling, sunny contentment. Money can make those gaps wider, and not having money can close them up altogether. None of it is fair.
The human condition is basically burrowing through a hoarder's apartment, only instead of hoarding newspapers they hoard inconvenience, and instead of compulsively shopping for sweats at J.C. Penney they compulsively shop for the deaths of your loved ones at the Inevitable Pain Factory. But then—sweet!—every once in a while you meet someone wonderful in the hoard, and sometimes you come across a fucking AWESOME LAMP, and that makes it worth it. (The abundance of cat shit is the same in both sides of the metaphor.)
But all the arbitrariness in the universe doesn't stop humans from striving desperately to be fair. That's basically what civilization is for—to impose fairness on wildness. We are obsessed with it (especially when we perceive ourselves to be on the losing end). We use "fairness" to weasel out of all kinds of situations in which fairness is completely irrelevant: Mitt Romney says it's "not faaaaaair" for Obama to discuss Romney's business record. It's "not fair" to criticize someone for being racist or joking about rape—because you're just bigoted against their opinion! It's "not fair" for you to tell me to wipe my hair out of the shower drain, because you left a rotten tomato behind the rice cooker and there are flies everywhere. Yawn, you guys.
And, of course, altruism exists too. Plenty of people fight on behalf of causes that don't directly affect them, because it's the right thing to do. Fairness. It's our thing.
And, it seems, it might be exclusively our thing. Because chimps? Chimps don't give a SHIT. A recent study exploring instincts toward fairness in humans noted that "our closest relatives, chimpanzees-when bargaining for food-will almost always accept an offer regardless of any subjective idea of ‘fairness.'" They'll take the big half. They'll take the small half. They'll take whatever. They're hungry.
The study's human test subjects, on the other hand, give plenty of shits about fairness:
The team recruited 21 healthy participants and made 11 of them thirsty by drip-feeding them a salty solution...The participants then separately took part in an ultimatum game. They were given instructions that two of them had been randomly selected to play a game to decide the split of a 500ml bottle of water that could be consumed immediately. One of them would play the part of 'Proposer' and decide how the bottle should be split. The other would be a 'Responder' who could either accept the split and so drink the water offered to them, or reject the split so that both parties would get nothing...
In reality, all of the participants played the part of the Responder. They were presented with two glasses of water with a highly unequal offer that they were told was from the Proposer: the glass offered to them contained 62.5ml, an eighth of the original bottle of water, and the other contained the remaining seven eighths that the Proposer wanted to keep for themselves. They had fifteen seconds to decide whether to accept or reject the offer.
No matter how thirsty they were, the participants overwhelmingly rejected the unequal offer. They would rather have no water at all than an unjustly small amount of water. And my instinct, when I imagine myself in that situation, is the same. Man, fuck that Proposer dude! I'd rather have NO WATER than a couple sips of his garbage charity water. (I wonder how participants would react to being offered the unfairly full glass—we might be opportunistic when it comes to self-interest, but we're certainly not short on guilt.)
According to Futurity.org:
In studies that require people to share money, it has been known for some time that the person receiving an offer will tend to reject it if they think it unfair, preferring to let both parties walk away with nothing rather than accept a low offer in the knowledge that the other person is taking home more.
The fact that we'll engage in a similar sort of symbolic abstinence when it comes to a basic biological need is amazing. What a bunch of martyrs.
Photo credit: albund / Stockfresh.