David P. Barash in The Chronicle Review:
No fair! No fair!
“No fair” must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.
In evolutionary terms, what’s going on here?
Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance. If so, our fairness instinct goes far beyond the pleasure we take in romantic tales of medieval Merry Men adventuring in Sherwood Forest. Sun believes that despite the fact of our specieswide social and economic disparities—perhaps in part because of them—human beings are endowed (or burdened) with an acute sensitivity to “who is getting how much,” in particular a deft attunement to whether anyone else is getting more or less than one’s self.