"Fairness" is often described in terms of equality of outcomes. But in a game, the "fairest" rules are often those that make the ablest players mostly likely to win, instead of those that distribute wins most evenly among players.
Even outside of games, a wide range of otherwise puzzling common intuitions about fairness can be understood if the fundamental "game" of life is seen as wooing, i.e., attracting mates by showing that you have fit genes. The fairest social institutions are then those in which success correlates as much as possible with genetic fitness.
For example, it can seem fair that the most attractive witty athletic folks get more mates and money, but seem unfair that the rich can buy better education for their children. Makeup can seem fair, while breast implants seem unfair.
A wide range of common intuitions about "fairness" cannot, however, be easily understood in terms of desires for relatively equal outcomes. For example, while there may often be widespread political support for redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, and for limiting the influence of money on many areas of life, there is very little support for redistributing from the pretty to the ugly, or from the witty to the dull. And there is little support for limiting the advantages that good-looking people receive in most areas of life.
In this short paper I describe how many of these common intuitions about fairness can be understood as a desire for clear fitness signals. That is, people use looks, sports, art, conversation, education, wealth, and much more to signal to potential mates that they have good genes. And people seem to think social institutions are "fairer" when they result in a stronger correlation between mating signals and fitness. It is as if the fundamental game of life is mating, and this game is fair when there is a "level paying field" which makes the best players the most likely to win.
We first review the many common intuitions about fairness that can not be easily understood as a desire for equal outcomes, we then discuss how these can be understood in terms of a preference for clear mating signals, and we conclude with a short discussion of some implications of this theory for what future policies will be considered fair.
The following are my best guesses about typical perceptions of ordinary people about the fairness or unfairness of actions and outcomes that do not much personally effect them. Some of these intuitions may well be specific to our culture; it would be nice to have survey data to test these guesses.
Perhaps we can make sense of the diverse set of apparently non-egalitarian fairness intuitions if we postulate that people typically want mating signals to indicate overall genetic fitness as clearly as possible. If this is what people want, they should like having many "success" signals to look at, but worry that "cross-talk" from noisy signals may degrade clearer signals. Non-genetic influences on success would also be worrisome, except when such influences are known and uniform, and can hence be corrected for in our inferences.
Improving the clarity of a signal should hurt some signalers and benefit others. But since those hurt tend to be less fit, it may be a bad sign to be publicly against clearer signals. Furthermore, the audience that observes signals should have more of a common cause in wanting clearer signals. It thus seems plausible that evolution would select for a broad majority being publicly in favor of clearer signals.
These implications of a signal-clarity theory of fairness seem to be in rough correspondence with many of the non-egalitarian fairness intuitions described above.
Under this concept of fairness, makeup is fair if it helps make it easier to tell symmetric faces from asymmetric ones, but breast implants and hair growth drugs are unfair if they reduce the correlation between your genes and how you look. Sports are more fair and interesting when doing well depends on broad measures of physical ability, rather than on narrower measures such as your body's ability to tolerate steroids. And since fine ability distinctions are most easily seen when people play others of similar ability, it is unfair to play against someone you could too obviously beat.
It should seem all right if success in music, politics, or even academia depends in part on other clear signals of broad genetic quality, such as wit or good looks, since those are easy to observe and correct for, and since the main point is to sort people by overall genetic fitness. It is more of a problem, however, if such success depends on wealth, especially the wealth of one's parents, since we expect a lot of noise in the relation between genes and wealth. We also expect that your parents and "who you know" are a noisy measure of genes, so we are often similarly uncomfortable when success depends on these.
We should prefer that people who work harder or smarter receive more money, since that gives us yet another signal about people's genes. We just do not want that noisy signal to mess up other clearer signals. We also do not like people going out of their way to make wealth depending on random things, so we do not like pure gambling where success is unrelated to skill. But we don't mind if wages depend on other fitness signals like education, even when education isn't much related to job performance.
We should not mind much if success depends on easily observable factors like age, ethnicity, or gender, as long as we are all clear how success depends on these things. But we should be concerned that this dependence be known and uniform; it should seem unfair if some people discriminate more than others against some ethnicity, for example. And trying to eliminate such discrimination is one simple way to try to make it known and uniform.
If we still see sports, art, and conversation as primarily ways for ordinary people to show their superior genes, then we should prefer large variations in such outcomes, because that allows us to better discriminate between potential mates. So we can accept a few people making most of the money in sports or art. But for activities, like getting food and shelter, which we see as important for non-signaling reasons, we are more concerned about inequality.
Our ancestors often shared the gains from high-variance hunting, but publicly obtained credit for their hunting success in the process. This allowed high variance in signals but lower variance in food intake, which seems the best of both worlds. Similarly, modern workers can accept high taxes that reduce wealth variance without greatly changing relative rankings or the ability to distinguish small differences in rankings.
Since charity is primarily a signal of wealth, it seems fair to praise the rich more, and to not care so much about the effectiveness of their gifts. If those who receive charity get a public stigma, then we can correct for such gifts in inferring their ability from their wealth.
Regarding redistribution, the signal-clarity concept of fairness can accept large tax rates, but not if taxes are too complex and arbitrary, redistributing in difficult to untangle ways unrelated to genetic fitness. That would just add undesirable noise into wealth as a signal of fitness. This fairness concept also suggests, however, that there is almost no prospect of redistribution of mating success itself. People should insist that they remain free to choose mates, even if that makes some people get much more or better mates than others.
People should be comfortable with "raising the valleys" in sport, art, and looks, via improving the success of those who do worse, as long as overall rankings remain clear. If people mainly care about relative success, however, this may not raise welfare much. People should be less comfortable with direct monetary redistribution from the genetically rich to the genetically poor, as that would make it harder to infer fitness from wealth.
Regarding genetic policies, people may be more comfortable than many expect about direct genetic discrimination, such as depicted in the movie GATTACA. If medical genetic tests can determine overall genetic fitness with high reliability, people may well accept using such tests to determine success in education, jobs, politics and elsewhere. If, however, available medical tests are narrow, looking only at some small subset of the genome, or they correlate poorly with evolved signals that we consider to have high reliability, then we may fear over-reliance on narrow medical tests will induce too much noise into evaluations of overall fitness.
People may also be more comfortable than many expect about a loss of genetic privacy, similar to the way consumers have been less concerned about other forms of privacy than many observers expected. There might be concerns, however, about excessive reliance on too narrow a measure of genetic fitness.
It is difficult to foresee how "fair" it will seem to let people buy better genes with money. If our genes could reason abstractly, they would realize that such purchases should strengthen, not weaken, the correlation between mating signals and genetic fitness. But such purchases were not possible when our genes gave our ancestors the concepts of fairness that we have inherited. So it may be the intuitions our genes gave us will consider such purchases as unfair, seeing them as similar to breast implants that buy looks that are poorly related to the genes your parents gave you.
Ordinary intuitions about fairness may, however, be more about a "level playing field" for mating games than about equality of outcomes. People may accept re-distributive policies that do not substantially interfere with fitness signals, such as uniform wealth taxes, and may want to reduce the "cross-talk" between noisy and clearer signals, such as between wealth and education. But this doesn't mean that they primarily want equal outcomes. So egalitarian notions of fairness may mislead us about the policies that people will consider fair.
Of course nothing has been said so far about whether common intuitions of fairness are "good" or "just" In fact, a better understanding of the self-serving genetic origins of our fairness intuitions may well led us to stronger doubts about their normative appropriateness. Such understanding may also, however, induce more doubts about how easy it would be to gain political support for normatively "better" policies that are contrary to common intuitions about fairness.
For their comments, I thank Chris Auld, Scott Badger, Bryan Caplan, Tyler Cowen, Hal Finney, Herbert Gintis, Peggy Jackson, Steven Landsburg, Peter McCluskey, Tom Morrow, Rob Nelson, Anders Sandberg, Hal Varian, and Ron White.