The Silence of the Righteous Which Leads to Injustice

The paper by Brosnan and de Waal “Evolution of responses to (un)fairness” is an attempt at understanding why the idea of fairness exists: “The human sense of fairness presents an evolutionary puzzle because it appears to run counter to the short-term interests of at least some parties”. They explore this question by categorizing subject’s responses to unfairness into two parts: “First-order IA” which is the negative reaction to receiving less than a partner for an equal task, and “Second-order IA” which is the negative reaction to a partner receiving less than you for an equal task.

It is easy to see the evolutionary benefit of First-order IA, if you react negatively to being given less rewards, it would be more likely for you to get a better result in the future. Second-order IA however, is counter intuitive. There would appear to be no benefit to pointing out you were given more than your fair share, but this conflict can be resolved by thinking in the context of cooperation.

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Working together facilitates tasks that would otherwise be impossible, and so sustaining a collaborative relationship would benefit all parties involved.

Given this observation, the authors propose that Second-order IA is a preemptive reaction to First-order IA. In other words, the benefitting party can reject the unequal deal as a way to anticipate the negative reaction of its partner. The adverse response of a collaborator is dangerous because it can result in the refusal to further cooperate.

To test this hypothesis, experiments were conducted on a variety of animals.

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Most showed some form of First-order IA, like dogs, crows and monkeys. But only humans and chimpanzees exhibited Second-order IA, which supports the idea that the second is dependent on the first. Almost all individuals tested were reluctant to work again with a partner that was given a better reward which goes to show how beneficial anticipating a negative reaction can be to sustaining cooperation.

Brosnan and de Waal’s experiment shows that, under simple structures of cooperation, humans react negatively to any type of reward inequity. But in applying this idea to the real world, some contradictions surface: the gender pay gap, the disparity of wealth between races, just to name a few. How can we live in this glaringly unequal world if we possess an innate sense of fairness that is rarely seen in other animals? To answer this question let’s set aside the real world for now and further analyze inequity aversion, since understanding what is at the core of the human sense of fairness will lead us to the explanation we are looking for. Second-order IA cannot exist without first-order IA, therefore anything that would impede the manifestation of the first would end up inhibiting both. And so, finding situations in which first-order IA does not occur might give us some insight into our question.

An experiment conducted at the University of Bonn can show one possible way to inhibit inequity aversion. Subjects were split into groups of three and asked to produce goods; participants could either choose to contribute, at a personal cost, or to let others do the work (Sebastian J. Goerg et al 5). One crucial aspect of this experiment is that rewards were given based on the number of goods the entire group produced, so someone who chose not to contribute would not get a significantly smaller reward because of it (Sebastian J. Goerg et al 6).

These groups were then split into two categories, one of which was named “444COM” and the other “345COM”; these numbers were meant to indicate how much money each participant would get. In “444COM” rewards were distributed evenly, so every collaborator would get 4 dollars for each good the group produced (Sebastian J. Goerg et al 6). In “345COM” however, one arbitrarily chosen participant would get 5, another 4, and the last one 3 dollars for every good the group produced. This setup is blatantly unfair, and this was clear to all subjects from the start (Sebastian J. Goerg et al 6).

The results of this experiment did not go as one might expect, not only did “345COM” groups have higher productivity, but also every participant worked substantially more than those in “444COM” groups, even those who were given only 3 dollars. Subjects in “444COM” groups chose to work an average of 72% of the time, by contrast the subjects that were unjustly given 3 dollars chose to work an average of 89% of the time (Sebastian J. Goerg et al 13).

At its surface there seems to be no way to conciliate these results with those of Brosnan and de Waal, since the participants who were treated unequally cooperated more not less. There is very little difference between the two studies; in both, participants were given some way to rebel, the rules were set so refusing to cooperate would damage oneself without much prospect of better treatment in the future. So why did the subjects in one case react with spite and anger, and not in the other? We explored the experiment by Goerg to deepen our understanding of Brosnan and de Waal’s study, and to be able to answer why our world is so unfair if we are an innately fair species. But it seems that we have come out of this more confused than where we started.

The only way to explain this dilemma is to acknowledge that we have been working under a false assumption. Brosnan and de Waal mention multiple times that humans possess first and second-order IA “We not only react negatively to getting less than a partner but sometimes also to getting more”. However, this notion does not stem from their experimental results, none of their test subjects were human. So it cannot be said, as was assumed, that we would react in the same way as chimpanzees or capuchin monkeys. Their idea of human fairness is based on previous academic knowledge, namely the “impunity game (IG)” and the “Ultimatum Game (UG)”. So, we should be analyzing how the University of Bonn study compares to these experiments, and not with those of Brosnan and de Waal.

Focusing on the impunity game, it involves two people: the proposer who chooses how much reward to give the responder and how much to keep for themselves, and the responder who can either accept his share or get nothing (3). Participants often refuse unfair splits, even though this would not hurt their partner, since they would get rewarded either way. This refusal is not rational, it stems from a feeling of anger directed at the proposer who actively disadvantaged them. Compare this to Goerg’s experiment: the unfairness did not result from the actions of the collaborators, but rather from intangible rules, and so the negative reaction seen in the impunity game all but vanished. From this it can be concluded that humans are much more likely to rebel against unfairness if it comes from a person, than if it is the result of immaterial concepts such as rules. And so, one explanation for the unfairness of our world has become clear after this investigation: many of the inequalities we see today are not the result of malice from one specific person, but rather from institutions and rules that underprivilege specific groups.

With this insight, it is time to turn to practical scenarios and observe this phenomenon outside of theory and experiment. If humans rebel less against faceless injustices, then let’s look for scenarios in which the enemy is intangible to see how we react. What if your oppressor is culture as a whole; how to resist something as ethereal as the social costumes of a people? This is the case for the remaining Tupi tribes in the amazon. They face no threat from a legal perspective (their rights to sovereignty have been assured since the Brazilian constitution of 1988), but that does not mean that they are not the victims of injustice. There are currently 3 thousand speakers of Tupi in a country with over 210 million inhabitants. This however was not always the case; as late as the XIX century, a version of Tupi called the “Lingua Geral” was spoken even by Portuguese colonists. The “Dictionary of Languages” illustrates this point thusly “it soon began to serve as a mother tongue for the children of mixed Portuguese-Tupí households, and for town-dwellers generally.” (Andrew Dalby 1).

The stark decline in prevalence of this language is a result of the pressure exerted by Portuguese Culture, which steadily replaced the previous norms, relegating them to obscurity. Those last 3 thousand speakers face a threat, not a violent one like many of their ancestors experienced, but one much more insidious: the loss of their cultural identity. Many tribes smaller than the Tupi have already been forgotten by time, their last descendants died and took with them their traditions: what they ate, the names of their gods, how they spoke, how they saw love, how they named the stars. This is something that has happened countless times over the history of a country that is home to 180 languages and 215 indigenous ethnic groups (Kanavillil Rajagopalan 1).

The injustice they face is not a simple monetary one, based on unfair distribution of rewards, but a worry that their civilization will be lost to time. Catholic Brazilians who speak Portuguese don’t have to think about the continuity of their customs, it is assured; this confidence is a luxury very few natives experience. In a real way, to the Tupi, Portuguese culture is the enemy; it imposes upon them the injustice of having their gods forgotten and of knowing that their grandkids might not be able to understand their language.

Nothing can be done in the face of this immaterial enemy; if their misfortune were being perpetrated by a person they could fight, but as it stands, all there is to do is wait. This serves to illustrate the role of ideas in creating injustice, they are much harder to overcome and often there is very little that can be done to equalize the situation. With this we can conclude that, humans do have a biological aversion to inequity, but this sense of fairness is by no means absolute. Our fairness response isn’t triggered when no specific person is to blame which becomes even more problematic since immaterial problems are the hardest to solve. The result of this is that faceless rules and institutions persist, disadvantaging several groups with limited opposition.

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The Silence of the Righteous Which Leads to Injustice. (2022, Jun 04). Retrieved from

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