Being fair

Words to ponder from Mark Pesce:
“People who don’t fight over anything else do fight over money. Money (particularly in the United States) is so fraught, so overloaded with meaning, that it nearly always evokes some sort of neurotic reaction. Money means survival. Money means freedom. Money means choice. It may not buy happiness, but, as Mae West once remarked, “I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and rich is better.” Money is so intensely evocative that we have been forced to develop elaborate and relatively fool-proof systems to handle it. Banks and other financial institutions exist precisely because people are rarely rational with their own money: these institutions serve as the collective superego we employ when confronted with choices about money. That these institutions – such as BCCI, or Arthur Andersen – periodically abandon these principles in the pursuit of profit indicates the huge gravitational strength of wealth.
Social scientists and neuropsychologists have recently begun to test the human drive to wealth. One of the most significant findings – released just a few months ago – indicates that we each have an innate sense of fairness in every financial transaction, and we’re more than willing to walk away from a transaction which we deem unfair. Furthermore, we’re willing to punish others for perpetrating those transactions. This cognitive “center of fairness” is one of the last areas of the brain to develop fully – it marks the final stage of adulthood, appearing reliably in adults after about age 22. This means our sense of fairness draws upon many of the foundational cognitive structures of the brain, which help us to understand value, social ranking, need, and so forth. Only when these systems are in place can we develop a notion of fairness. And if any of these systems fail – as does happen, on occasion – psychologists can predict an individual’s descent into psychopathology. Being fair is perhaps our highest cognitive achievement as individuals, and thus – quite rightly – it is marked as the beginning of wisdom.”