Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Contra Private Fairness

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Contra Private Fairness

Article excerpt


How do I know that this colour is red?--It would be an answer to say: "I have learnt English."

--Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, [section] 381

In the beginning there was the deed.

--Goethe, Faust I, Scene Six

Ordinary people appear to use the word fair somewhat readily, rather frequently, and quite effortlessly in everyday conversation, and yet, our understanding and use of the term in economics can best be described as muddled. This humbling observation is nowhere more evident than in classroom discussions on the observed behavior in ultimatum games (Giith, Schmittberger, and Schwarze 1982). In a

standard version of the game, proposer a offers to divide a $10 pie between responder b and himself: 10 - z for a and z for b. (1,2)

Responder b can either accept the proposal and both individuals earn their respective amounts of cash in the proposal, or b can reject the proposal sending both individuals home with nothing. If asked why a proposed the modal offer of z = 5 to b, a frequently responds with, "because that's fair." If asked why b rejected z = 2 from a, b's swift response is, "because that's not fair." To both participants, these answers more than adequately convey their intended meaning to the questioner following the arguably artificial exercise they just completed. Yet, when we attempt to construct our understanding of such behavior, we are addled. An unexamined thought process simultaneously posits that the fairness of a single event, the even split in the ultimatum game, is both the cause for the action and the effect of it:

"Why did proposer a offer z = 5 to b?"

"Because that's fair."

"What is a fair outcome in the ultimatum game?"

"Proposer a offers z = 5 to b." (3)

Thus, it appears, as Fehr, Kirchsteiger, and Riedl (1993: 437) succinctly put it in their opening sentence, that "fairness is an elusive term." Unfortunately, our current understanding of fair is not merely elusive; it is circular and, moreover, admitting this to ourselves does not disculpate us for not trying to pin down the semantics of fair in economic behavior.

This article attempts to clarify our understanding of the everyday use of the word fair as we apply it to economic behavior. Is fair a lazy label in ordinary discourse that connotes justice or equity or impartiality? To what extent can we incorporate notions of what is fair into our models of utility maximization? What role does human sociality play in an experience deemed to be fair? What is the connection between a fair experience, or the private feelings of what is fair, and the public social interaction that produces such feelings? What is the epistemological relationship between the rules that guide fair behavior and the experience itself that is deemed fair?

Drawing upon the work of Wierzbicka (1996, 2006) I first discuss the decomposition of fair into its semantic primitives. Semantic primitives are simple expressions that are presumed to be innate human concepts common to all languages and are indefinable in terms of each other. One interesting clue about the content of what is meant by fair is that Fletcher (1996) and Wierzbicka (2006) report that the word is one-to-one untranslatable into any other language, that is, the concept of fair is distinctly Anglo in origin. Other languages either directly import the English word, as in the German exclamation "Das ist nicht fair!"; fail altogether to have a comparable word, as is the case for French; or use a single word depending upon the context to cover the separate meanings of just and fair (for example, justo in Spanish). These observations indicate that the semantic concept of fair is culturally portable but not necessarily ubiquitous.

Wierzbicka's decomposition of fair into its constituent semantic primes brings to the foreground many subtle and perhaps hidden nuances of meaning that we rely on when we spontaneously use the word fair in ordinary discourse. …

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