Fairness WhatsApp Chats

Fairness. We have all heard the word. Most of us know what it means. But as it turns out, all of us have very different images of it. Look at these excerpts from my WhatsApp chats:

“In terms of relationships there is not really any fairness at all. There can never be a right or wrong justification for what people do” – a designer at Google, invested in User Experience

“If you specify a context, that particular fairness will be pegged to its framework” – a Ferrari employee.

“It’s the idea that no one should be favored, that they get what they deserve. Makes me think about the concept of justice too haha” – a Cognitive Science researcher.

“It is being true to yourself and to your words… not proving yourself a hypocrite” – a late-40’s AstraZeneca manager

“For a self-centered individual like me, fairness will comprise everything that is in my bubble” – an Actor and ex-financial analyst

“Being empathetic about someone or something and then acting accordingly” – a Master’s student passionate about Biodiversity Conservation

“Deeply imbibed in the idea of fairness is the idea of meritocracy, the two cannot exist one without the other” – further remarked the Actor

“Treating everyone equally irrespective of their cadre both in professional and personal and social life” – a late-20’s employee in an Indian bank

“Wow, its difficult to say it without referring to unfairness and hence, without circularity” – a post-doctoral researcher in Cognitive Science

“Fairness as in skin tone or moral fairness?” – many(!) Indian interlocutors


So how do we, as conversationalists and friends, understand and describe fairness?


I started with a simple question, ‘how do you describe fairness?’ I sent this in a personal message to many of my current WhatsApp chats – a personal participant pool of sorts – wanting to see what came up when different people thought about fairness. A culturally-diverse lot, might I add. The idea was to gain appreciation of how non-specialists look at fairness as a concept. What are the shared themes? Where do people differ? In an informal analysis of twenty chats with friends, a few recurring themes emerged, touched upon by nearly everybody as requisite descriptors of fairness: unbiased, subjective, sensitive.

Fair is what is Unbiased: 

The importance of being unbiased was highlighted by use of words such as ‘not favoured’, ‘no discrimination’, ‘equality in options and access’, ‘level playing field’, ‘no previous biases’, ‘no advantage’  and the word ‘unbiased’ itself. The concept of impartiality was evoked often, many times mid-conversation and at times, as the definition of fairness itself. “A decision is fair if it is not inclined towards any one single party!”, remarked a friend from India, currently employed in a bank. Another friend from Paris expressed the sentiment of unbiasedness in terms of power relations, “a fair monoamorous relationship would have a power balance that doesn’t put either one in a hierarchical structure.”

From the analysis of conversations, unbiasedness in actions, procedures, and distributions seemed to be crucial to the idea of fairness. This further brought along its own host of questions: At which level of interactions does one implement unbiasedness? Unbiasedness in opportunities or in distribution of outcomes? Distribution of basic resources or redistribution of wealth produced? How about unbiasedness in procedures, thinking in particular of power relations? Unbiased towards every individual or groups as a whole? Implementation of unbiasedness can quickly get very complex. How to make systems and interactions unbiased falls under the scope of political, economic, and social theories and is part of a much more extended debate.

How does one provide equal playing-fields for all? An important concept underscored by one of the conversationalists was the ‘starting point’ of systems. “I think the starting point of any system would determine how the system will end up working”, bringing to mind Rawl’s evocation of the ‘original position’. Indeed, where concepts of fairness – and by extension, justice – are involved, it would be unfair not to mention John Rawls. A friend, professor of Public Policy, discussed fairness in terms of  the Rawlesian veil of ignorance, “on issues of fairness, I tend to take a Rawlesian perspective. If there are two income distributions, one highly unequal and one less equal, the one that most people would choose if they didn’t know where in the income distribution they would fall, is most fair.”

When one considers unbiasedness –  as did my interlocutors– requirements of objectivity and equality are typically evoked. A shift away from personal considerations and subjectivity is demanded, and equality of positions, opportunities and outcomes is sought. But, as shown by excerpts above, the conversations equally stressed the subjective nature of fairness, idealizing individual freedom and the value of inherent inequalities.

Fairness is Subjective: 

Nearly everyone made references to the role of subjectivity in fairness and the importance of a personalized view. ‘Individual’s subjective’, ‘experiential beliefs’, ‘biased’, ‘lopsided’, ‘using own experiences to define’, ‘dependent on each individual’, were some of the expressions used. It would seem that fairness, though a socially determined concept, is determined by every person in their own unique way. Or so, many of my interlocutors said. “What’s fair to me can be unfair to you, but if we compare it to a framework which is also constantly evolving based on general common societal norms, then one becomes right and the other wrong”, said the Ferrari employee, currently residing in Italy. “To describe fairness to a child, I’d say ‘try and think how you’d feel if ‘x’ happened you and they will find it fair/ unfair depending on their perception of the situation”, suggested a younger friend, a native of Romania.

Despite a traditional conception in political philosophy, of fairness being pegged to equality, folks seemed to be appreciative of the role of individual perception in fairness. Indeed, we want to find universal understandings but subjectivity cannot be underestimated, as was noted by the Romanian friend, “the definition states something but then everyone can make what they want of it”. A biochemistry PhD student made the same point, “I think devising an objective measure of fairness is very difficult, if not impossible”.

An important consideration in the subjective view of fairness, is that of deservedness: “the idea of what one deserves is strongly conditioned by the subject’s individual and collective beliefs”. The determination of this deservedness can be brought about by measures such as effort, input, merit and so on. However, the dominant picture that emerged from the fairness conversations – in my analysis, at least – was certainly not purely meritocratic. All interlocutors were eager to call upon the role of social, cultural and other environmental factors as important determinants of fairness.

Fairness is Sensitive to Context:

On sending my ‘how do you describe fairness?’ message, a friend residing in Italy first and foremost asked, “What context – law, corporate, humanity?” An attention to context was pervasive. This was exemplified by terms such as, ‘pegged to a framework’, ‘tailored by community and individuals’, ‘heavily culture-dependent, ‘relative equality’, and so on. These terms take the notion of fairness beyond the individual and place it within a socio-cultural context. Thus, individuals are seen to judge fairness by comparison to outside points of reference: “I have no idea how people compute fairness. No gut feeling. I just believe that the factors used are heavily culture-dependent – so the ‘what they deserve should vary across individuals and communities to a great extent”. The actor similarly underscored an importance of social values in terms of story-telling, ”The hero’s journey – that’s how we interpret narratives of people – always paints adversity as a virtue. Our notions of fairness are deeply linked with adversity and thus one who hasn’t faced adversity, isnt considered a whole person. The values of society are extremely important because people are compensated accordingly”.

All folks were mindful of the domain-specificity of fairness and appreciated the distinctive meanings of fairness based on context. As a result, fairness was talked about at various levels: economic – “income distribution should rest on effort and reward equally”; moral – “to explain fairness to an old teenager, I would start discussing moral philosophy… though I myself don’t have a personal moral philosophy so it would get sketchy”; legal – “that which is determined by courts”; family interactions – “to a child, fairness would be doing as his mother asks since she does so much for him”; relationships – “in a marriage you will always feel you are doing more than your partner and she will feel the same about you”, and even the religious – “you can always find a situation in which the one who decides about fairness is a God. For example, whether one should go to heaven or hell”. Most conversationalists were able to see a meaningful distinction between how fairness would work in legal and market situations versus fairness in social and personal relationship situations. Factors such as conversation, agreement, bargaining, power relations, hierarchy were reckoned to be important determinants of fairness judgements: “Fairness to me would mean no discrimination and where there must be conversation around topics and their contents, like that of gender divide”, asserted a feminist journalist.

Methodological Notes:

An overt questioning of definitions – as the method for obtaining folk understandings of fairness – might lead to different images than what would be created by analyzing actions and behavior, personal narratives, stories, or even context-driven conversations. In fact, it would be of interest to see how people’s definitions match up with their actions, when ideas are put to tangible outcomes. Would we expect a gap between verbal definitions and behavioural outcomes?

The use of WhatsApp, which is conversational in pace but lacks the bodily cues of a face-to-face conversation, may introduce further methodological idiosyncrasies. Would answers differ, if one were to respond back to the same question in a letter/ email/ written note, all of which seem to provide more time for composing thought and require a more coherent response? What about an interview with a researcher? Would we expect more formal definitions, aimed at political correctness? The method of inquiry surely would affect what knowledge we gain from such research and explorations. A pluralistic approach integrating methods, is likely to provide a more comprehensive set of factors relevant to folk understanding of fairness.

Demographics – gender, age, cultural affiliation, profession, socio-economic status and so on – are expected to play a determining role as well. Though my pool of conversationalists was fairly diverse, including people from multiple cultures, age groups, professional backgrounds and so on, it was not sufficiently large or representative. Neither were any thorough procedures for conversation analysis followed. So, this is at best a lay social survey.

Appreciating Folk Wisdom in conclusion:

So here I am, doing a PhD on fairness, I peeked into what the people nearest to me think of this singular word. And got more evidence of the vastness of the concept. There might be an evolutionary basis for the sense of fairness since humans have been noted to have intuitive notions of it, but the content of fairness judgements can become a rather complex matter. They vary from individual to individual, between cultural groups, along socioeconomic statuses and across other demographic variables. These judgements take into account procedural matters along with outcomes of distributions. The domain in which the judgement is being made, matters heavily. There is a developmental shift in our understanding of fairness, as children understand fairness differently in different phases of their growing up. So, at any given time, for a given individual and a specific situation, fairness judgements get made taking into account a variety of environmental, socio-cultural, and private factors.

Within a small and very personal group of respondents, most of the important themes that I spent months reading about had been brought up. In the course of one evening! All these views do indeed exist in the fairness research literature – Nicolas Baumard, Joe Henrich, Jean Ensminger, David Rand, Robert Folger, John Thibaut, Lawrence Walker and others – but different disciplines and research groups usually deal with them in relative isolation. The three descriptors of fairness discussed here are only the broadly recurring themes. They are supplemented by many other factors, placing fairness close to the individual as well as within the society. A colloquial discussion showed the richness of the construct in people’s minds, calling for more integrated approaches to Fairness research. There is much knowledge to be gained from insights of non-academics and outside of literature. And for important and folk-relevant concepts like fairness, we absolutely must!

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