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Book Review: ‘The Fairness Instinct: The Robin Hood Mentality And Our Biological Nature’ by L. Sun

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Superheroes are in vogue now; maybe they always have been. Their vigilantism appeals to our sense of fairness. We love to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them. We like to see good guys get what they deserve. Biologist Lixing Sun has studied animals and their behaviors for some years and in his book The Fairness Instinct: The Robin Hood Mentality And Our Biological Nature he explores this need we have for fairness. Where does it come from? Why does it appeal to us so innately?

The story of Robin Hood – one of the original vigilantes – is used as his framework for this exploration. Sun makes this assertion: our love for fairness is a corollary of social living, driven by reciprocity and compromise. He attempts to explain this instinct for fairness as an evolutionary response to social interaction. Even if you do not agree with the evolutionary angle there is still an interesting perspective in this book.

“As long as our social system is imperfect – if there is such a thing as a perfect one – we question it’s fairness and legitimacy; we want to change it,” states Sun. Enter Robin Hood and his counterparts, those figures who fight for fairness, justice, equality. After establishing our universal desire for fairness he begins to expatiate on other emotions that derive from it, such as envy and anti-intellectualism and revenge, or “wild justice.” It’s fitting that forgiveness is featured in that particular chapter. Sun concludes: “forgiveness, though not invincible, is the first – and also the best – line of defense against spite.”

A theme running through the book seems to be that the world is full of bad government. Is there anyone who doubts this? Poor or oppressive leadership allows inequality to be clearly seen. This destabilizes society. From this spring revolution and terrorism, both touched on in the book. In fact Sun reaches a good conclusion when discussing terrorism. There is an old adage that if we forget history we are doomed to repeat it. But, terrorism is often mired in a “history of past conflict”. The memory of inequality – driving a desire for fairness – engenders more violence. Perhaps forgiveness is the route to take. After hitting those hot issues, he concludes with polygyny, monogamy and religion.

Sun’s style sometimes gains rhythm and cadence, avoiding density of words while still presenting facts. It’s not easy to read in the sense of being a page-turner. I had to refer back to other parts of the book to understand some conclusions properly. But the writing doesn’t bog down, either.

It covers a great many societal issues: distributive justice, procedural justice, reciprocity, compromise, asymmetrical reciprocity, equity rule, anti-intellectualism, relative deprivation and forgiveness. He does not seem to be promoting any philosophy or specific way of thinking, just the facts about fairness and how it has affected the world.

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  • bliffle

    ‘Fairness’ is simply the result of Evolution. The human animal is weak of claw and tooth and doesn’t have protective fur or armor. The only reason the human animal can survive is by joint effort, and that always means agreements and indebtedness. And the results prove that fairness pays: my grandparents and parents sacrificed to found the universities that I learned from, and they fought to protect my opportunity to prosper, so it is only fair that I honor them by extending the same opportunities to those who follow. No system of contracts or imposed obligations can ensure that the system works, and so it must be inculcated within us so that it becomes a heritable characteristic. That intellectual embrace is the only thing that can make human society work. Else we would collapse into the primordial ooze, like other failed evolutionary experiments.

    Oh, and Robin Hood was not a ‘vigilante’, which is a sort of informal police effort.

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