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Thinking and Deciding 17: Fairness and Justice


People often value fairness over and above the utility it provides, violating utilitarianism

Equity theory: The desire for justice

According to equity theory, people desire outcomes that are just or equitable. Simple enough. There are a few experiments in which subjects are asked to split up money, or somesuch thing, like the ultimatum game. Baron argues that people act against their own self interest when they reject unequal distributions so that both participants gain nothing. But self interest is more than just short term monetary gain. If we expand the outcomes to later in the future, as well as certain emotions, then justice and fairness can totally be within one’s self interest, and punishing unequal distributors may be better for everyone in the long run.

Utilitarianism and fairness

In resolving questions of fairness, Baron offers up utilitarianism as a solution. What counts as “fair” depends in large part on whether it maximizes utility. He offers many principles that need to be taken into account in order to have the best chance at maximizing utility in decisions about fairness.

We can’t just redistribute everything exactly evenly, because that will take away people’s incentives to be productive. Individual tastes also factor in, like if we have a pizza that is half pineapple, half pepperoni. If I love pepperoni, and you love pineapple, and we hate the alternative, then what’s fair may be in allocating to our tastes.


The way that people make moral judgments does not line up with utilitarianism, and sometimes departs from it drastically.  This section provides a good list of ways in which people’s moral intuitions may lead to a worse outcome for everyone overall.

Heuristics of self-interest

When multiple heuristics can be used to judge fairness, people tend to pick the one that benefits them the most. I’ll bet this is totally sub conscious. One option would just feel more fair.

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