Fairness is central to our survival as a social species. Even very young children seem to intuitively know that it’s wrong to hurt others, right to help those in need, and important to be fair. Last month’s column focused on the complex neurobiology of love and its power to encourage couples and kin to be helpful and fair when sharing responsibilities, resources, and rewards.

But which neurobiological systems encourage such altruistic fairness within larger communities (such as political communities) that are composed of people who aren’t closely related or romantically connected? The basic social principle is often called reciprocal altruism — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Democratic societies elect a representative government that is expected to competently and fairly allocate societal resources, responsibilities, and rewards. Our democratic society is once again into a season in which we’ll seriously explore the political ramifications of political competence and fairness. When seeking political office, candidates promise to be fair to all, but typically accuse their opponents of being unfair. The voters decide who is the more credible, and then revisit their decision at the next election.

Voters tend to be most concerned about the fair distribution of governmental costs and services, but they’re also interested in the role a government seeks to play in regulating personal behavior. Abortion, drug use, and the nature of marriage are examples of such current issues — and we’ve recently added the rights and treatment of war prisoners and suspected terrorists to this growing list of politically charged fairness issues.

Campaign rhetoric seeks to define its view of political fairness through such loaded terms as special interests, welfare fraud, tax breaks for the wealthy, influential lobbyists, affirmative action, poverty stricken, and corporate greed. In essence, the message is that the other side is unfairly getting more than our side. How does a voter determine credibility?

Assessing Fairness
An innate, principally frontal lobe system that matures through experience processes our basic reciprocal strategy for assessing fairness. The strategy is commonly called tit-for-tat: cooperate with others on the first encounter, and then imitate whatever the other person does on subsequent occasions (or to modify the Biblical injunction, Do unto others as they have done unto you.). We see this principle operating at many levels — such as in reciprocated Christmas card mailings that continue until one person drops the other, and in our tendency to quit patronizing a business that gave poor value, but to give it another chance if the management changes.

Young children begin to develop tit-for-tat values and behaviors, and the ability to detect cheating in others through informal play with family and friends, and by carrying out household tasks imposed by their parents (who can give or withhold favors). School provides a more complicated formal setting that introduces them to (1) a larger non-kin group, and (2) deferred rewards/punishments, such as within extended curricular projects and grades that are based on weeks of cumulated work.

Our emotional body language is quite transparent, so we become adept at detecting the subtle guilt signals that tit-for-tat cheaters often send. We similarly exhibit emotional displays that express our feelings to others about exchanges (for example, gratitude suggests fairness, and anger suggests unfairness). We tend to break off relationships that become untrustworthy.

Such experiences eventually move us towards a selection of personal friendships and political/business/cultural alliances with those we’ve come to trust. When a relationship reaches a sufficient level of trust through many successful tit-for-tat experiences, the parties often quit keeping score, and formally or informally commit to an extended, more reciprocally relaxed altruistic relationship. Marriage and collegial partnerships are examples of positive situations in which both parties can assume fair collaborative behavior and trust over an extended period.

Our complex society also requires a more abstract altruistic commitment — to do things for others with no hope of personal gain, such as donating money to the poor, or to charitable organizations that will probably never help us. Further, although we could usually leave without tipping, we normally tip selected service employees (such as waiters and hotel maids) in businesses we may never return to.

Fairness is often codified into rules — in games, in classroom management, in institutional policies and procedures, in the marketplace, and in our legal system. It probably all begins with parental instructions on how to play and share toys with others, but it continues throughout life as a central element of how we view others and others view us.

Political Fairness
Political decision and action in a mass society are complex and so most of us don’t expect to benefit from every political decision. Win some, lose some. We’re generally even willing to accept an occasional unfair decision. But we will keep score about political unfairness — regardless of who is being unfairly treated. We’re not necessarily altruistic in our concern about the unfair treatment of others, but rather we realize that such unfair behavior may be directed at us the next time.

Secrecy and lying are thus as counterproductive in politics as they are in marriage and family. Our Constitution and legal system are explicit in requiring that governmental decision making be open, in order to enhance fairness. The press and Courts exist to report and adjudicate instances of deceptive unfairness.

A free press (whether paper or electronic) should thus contain investigative reporters, columnists, and commentators from across the political spectrum to insure that the public is informed of fair/unfair behavior across the political spectrum. Few voters expect balanced information from political ads, but rather expect that unfair candidates will become unfair officials if elected — and so they vote accordingly.

Assuming a free press, the track record of the incumbent is fairly clear (unless it’s a position such as State Insurance Commissioner that many voters don’t really understand). Voter knowledge of a challenger is often less clear. So how does our voting brain assess competence and fairness in candidates when we don’t personally know enough about them to make an informed decision?

We depend on the advice of credible others in the same way that we depend on book reviewers and film critics who have provided good advice in the past. Many candidates thus seek endorsements from widely respected individuals, or a newspaper campaign ad may list dozens of local citizens who support a candidate. Political party affiliation similarly helps voters to identify candidates who represent their political values.

In the end though, we voters individually decide who we will trust to be effective and fair. And if we chose wrong, we typically get to rectify our error at the next election.