The Fairness Instinct: The Robin Hood Mentality And Our Biological Nature by L. Sun (book review).

November 25, 2013 | By | Reply More

It isn’t just Man who is predisposed towards the value of fairness. A lot of animals and especially other primates prefer this innately as well. Professor Lixing Sun’s book ‘The Fairness Instinct’ with its sub-title ‘The Robin Hood Mentality And Our Biological Nature’ points the way as to why we feel this way and want an even playing field. He even stays topical by how we resent the corporate heads taking massive bonuses in these current years of recession. Although he agrees with my own thoughts that this is the way their contracts are written, I would still be interested in seeing under what grounds they receive such bonuses, especially as it is often these sorts of people who write the contracts. Raising the cost to the consumer or sacking people and getting those left to do additional work is hardly something that I would call fair and say that is worthy of a bonus, would you?


Although Sun only uses American companies as example, he points out the bonuses are only a minor fraction of a company’s worth. You would then have to ask where does all the rest of the money go, especially as these same companies also receive government grants and even ask for more in the recession arriving by expensive private planes. The latter is hardly something a successful company and the corporate heads deem worthy of a bonus. No wonder we’re all livid because that doesn’t seem like they have problems. Equally, I suspect had they arrived in rags with a begging bowl, we’d also thought they were trying it on. Sun’s better solution is that they could have all arrived on a normal flight to Washington. I think if there was more transparency with what the bonuses entails, even if it was just to the stockholders who must surely have the power to veto a bonus decision or lay the grounds for why they should have one, considering that they can also give a vote of no confidence in a corporate head things would improve things somewhat. Of course, you’d also have to expect fairness would work over greed.

Sun’s examples of the Ultimatium and Dictator Games were interesting but I wish I could see more diversity in the same types. It would have been interesting to see how the various religious types would do compared to company bosses. Unless you didn’t know, the Ultimatium Game depends on how much of $10 would you give to a stranger you would never see again with the latter giving it back if he thought it unacceptable knowing how much you would give. If the amount isn’t acceptable, neither of them get any money. The Dictator variant would mean the recipient would have no choice in how much you gave them. This determines your sense of generosity and fairness. I’ve come across this test in other books and if it ever became a general test to get a job, I can see a lot of people cheating if they know the right result would give more than they would in normal life, confident that passing the test that they would benefit more later.

Speaking of jobs, Sun points out that the larger the pay gap between top management and lower paid staff, the poorer the quality of work. This really should be of concern for a lot of companies world-wide, especially when it comes to safety, look at the number of cars being recalled with problems or health, as witnessed by the various things discovered in processed food. Even from a costly insurance point of view, it would be cheaper to pay the workers more.

It’s understandable that Sun’s oriental background can present some insight into China and presents a deep insight and then crucially points out the carry-on’s by the USSR and the USA, including the latter’s eugenics movement and the forcible sterilisation of 64,000 people. McCarthyism also did far more damage and mistrust than the Communist movement should give everyone pause to think. I’d probably go one step further in this and question the intellectual right for the right to bear arms over there as well. Hardly a fair playing field for the many who choose not to carry weapons.

Most crucial is the effect against intellectualism as if removing us all would sort things out in their countries. Rather amusingly, for such a serious subject, back in the early 1920s, journalist HL Mencken points out that the need for an ordinary man as US President would be a moron and immediately I thought of the second Bush and even Sun himself later points out there were two wasted election terms when George was in office and put a hold on so much that would have kept the USA progressive. Sun also points out that the qualifications to be President does not include IQ tests or exam results. As we’ve witnessed in the UK recently, this even applies to bankers. The percentage figures given on page 114 of the dip in education in the USA should really frighten a lot of you people over there and I’m amazed more SF isn’t being written parodying the USA’s desire to turn into a third world state.

Sun’s assertion that Ghandi’s turning the other cheek against any atrocity would clearly have led us all to be under Nazi rule, at least those who survived their purges. All such thoughts are invalid unless both sides play by the same rules. It just takes one side to, for the want of a better word, cheat and you beat the other side.

There was one very interesting thought that Sun gave regarding Kennedy’s assassination that I hadn’t considered before. His military advisors were prepared to go to war over Cuba and Kennedy stood by the first-shot rule which forced Khrushchev to back down. Maybe both sides thought that their removal would ensure more militaristic leaders which is not a comforting thought to go to sleep on.

The examination of the various Communist political systems around the world brings one obvious thought. Soon as you create a band of leaders, they want more than the person in the street and you immediately get a two-tier situation. I don’t think any political system is going to remedy this simply because anyone given a leadership status is going to need something that would distinguish him or her from those who aren’t leaders or anyone would be doing the job. Trying to make everyone equal also means you go for the lower common denominator. As seen in Communist China where everyone, other than leaders, had to work in the fields had a detrimental effect which they are still overcoming. With the USSR, Stalin’s solution was to either exile dissidents to Siberia or kill them and had a similar effect. Clearly, having a national being coerced into thinking and doing identically, outside of safety measures, is never going to last.

I had heard the tale about a blacksmith committing murder and because he was the only one in that profession, a Swiss village got their retribution by executing a tailor, because they had a spare one, seems particularly harsh. Hardly fair.

The examination of religions, especially with the Mormons’ polygyny, equally does not show much in the way of fairness but then looking at how hard equality for the sexes across the line shows them all not eager to evolve.

Religions inability to adapt to social changes or be too rigid has seen their devotees numbers drop. As I’ve pointed out in the past, a belief through religion gives too much control to its leaders and nothing from its deity has left many people questioning any sort of belief.

I did wonder if Sun went a bit off track with looking at political and religious history and beliefs, focusing more on what he would like to see as being fair. In his acknowledgements, Sun points out he had to so a lot of research to bring himself up to speed on a variety of subjects so probably didn’t feel he could make that particular leap. Saying that, to be fair, you do come away from this book with a lot more knowledge than when you went in. You can tell that from my reaction above how much I was given to think on this subject. I do hope Sun explores this subject more and tries to fathom out how people can dish out unfairness as well. In the meantime, give this book a fair assessment and read for yourself.

GF Willmetts

November 2013

(pub: Prometheus Books. 323 page small hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $26.30 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-61614-848-5. Ebook: $12.99/ISBN: 978-1-61614-848-5)

check out websites:

Tags: ,

Category: Books, Culture

Warning: Use of undefined constant php - assumed 'php' (this will throw an Error in a future version of PHP) in /homepages/40/d502808907/htdocs/clickandbuilds/sfcrowsnest/wp-content/themes/wp-davinciV4.7/single.php on line 65

About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Leave a Reply