Justice – Fairness as a Character Trait

According to Psychologists Martin Seligman & Christopher Peterson, fairness means treating everyone the same and not letting one’s own personal feelings or biases override the rules.  To be just is to be fair, impartial and to follow the rule of law. If a leader is not just then he is capricious, partial, corrupt or unfair. An organization needs leaders who are just and who will distribute rewards and opportunities fairly. There are few things that will cause discontent in the organization so much as a belief that things are not fair. When people believe leadership is not fair they lose a sense of control over their lives and will either give up or look elsewhere for better opportunities.

Just leaders also ensure that rewards or dues are not withheld from those deserving of them. If someone is performing much better than another but is not receiving the same rewards, they are likely to feel mistreated. Ensure that compensation matches performance and that there are clear rules that underline how rewards are distributed in the organization. Similarly, just leaders distribute rewards, opportunities and punishers in a proportionate manner.  Even if someone broke a rule, imposing too harsh of a punishment can be unjust as can giving too much of a reward for a minor achievement. People are very sensitive to being treated fairly and expect consistency from their leaders.

One group of researchers from Georgia State University, seeking to understand why this sense of fairness is so central to the human experience, studied a group of primates to find some answers. They gave different groups of monkey’s different rewards for completing the same task and observed the effects. The group of monkeys who received less actually refused to continue doing the task and became irritated. They also did similar studies with other types of animals and found that only species who required group cooperation to survive developed this sense of fairness. The researchers theorized that we have developed an innate sense of fairness because that is what is required for long-term cooperation in a group. Any organization relies upon long-term cooperation of its members and a fundamental threat to that cooperation is to begin distributing rewards unevenly. Like the monkeys who refused to continue working and who became agitated, many people will respond in the same way if injustice begins to permeate the culture.

In summary, there are 6 key behaviors that just leaders engage in:

1. Just leaders give people their proper dues and do not withhold good from those who deserve it.
2. Just leaders do not punish those who do not deserve it.
3. Just leaders apply the rules of the organization equally to everyone and ensure the rule of law.
4. Just leaders do not pervert judgment by taking bribes or other favors.
5. Just leaders implement proportional rewards and consequences.
6.Just leaders base their judgments on an adequate sample of facts.

A fair society is based on the “rule of law” instead of the “whim of a dictator” or an individual’s personal biases.  Fairness is the foundation of criminal justice systems that most societies have.  People value fairness in others, especially in those who hold power. Abuses of power are usually violations of fairness.

Seeing fairness in others is satisfying while witnessing injustice is deeply disturbing.  The Opposite of fairness is injustice, bias and prejudice which are all undesirable.  Those who are not fair discriminate based on irrelevant criteria such as race, gender, wealth, attractiveness etc…Fairness is a rare trait indeed as most people are partial and biased.

One’s capacity to be fair appears to be related to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning.  Kohlberg’s model has largely been validated in the research literature.  According to Kohlberg, there are 6 stages of moral reasoning that include:

Preconventional Stages (Stages 1 and 2): Stage 1 involves judging moral good in terms of self‐interest or what avoids punishment and/or earns rewards. These are the egocentric focus stages. Stage 2 of this phase involves a morality of exchange and probability as you help others because they might help your or because you may be punished if you don’t.

Conventional Stages (Stages 3 & 4): The next stages involve judging whether an action conforms to social laws, rules and conventions. Stage 3 involves judging right or wrong at the interpersonal level. Right is seen as that which will nurture relationships and wrong is concerned with what will harm relationships. In Stage 4, right or wrong is based on how a behavior
affects broader social units such as the family or society as a whole.

Post‐Conventional Stages (Stages 5 & 6): The most advanced form of moral reasoning involves using abstract principles of fairness, justice and care to decide what is right. Advanced moral reasoning also involves a balanced consideration of the moral claims of all stakeholders in a given issue based on universal moral principles of justice. In Stage 5 something is seen as right if it conforms with duties we have to society but allows for revision to the system. In stage 6, people adhere to universal principles of justice.

Fairness is often understood in terms of two different ethics: care and justice.  Justice is primarily about weighing principles to determine moral rights and responsibilities. It is objective and “blind” to individual characteristics.  Care is about a compassionate determination on how to meet people’s needs. It takes into account the needs, interests and well‐being of all those involved.  Some research reveals that it is hard to separate the justice from caring ethics and that they are interwoven for most people.

Correlates and Consequences
There are 5 main benefits that developing a sense of justice and fairness confers upon people.

i.) Moral Identity Formation: With advanced moral reasoning abilities comes strong personal moral beliefs and adherence to those beliefs.
ii.) Relational Problem Solving: Advanced moral reasoning leads to exposure to alternative interpretations of reality and an increased ability to solve problems in relationships. This is because you need to be sensitive to relationship problems, assemble facts, make determinations about morality and decide what to do about it.
iii.) Self Esteem: A strong moral identity and acting in concert with it leads to increased self‐esteem.
iv.) Perspective Taking: As you increase in the ability to engage in moral reasoning you increase your ability to place yourself in other people’s shoes and can better understand their needs and perspectives. Those who focus on justice emphasize general role obligations people have while those who focus on care emphasize affective knowing states such as empathy.
v.) Self Reflection: As you come to embrace and understand universal principles of fairness your own self-knowledge increases. As you take other peoples perspectives you become more aware of your own perspectives and are better able to contrast and refine them.

Preconventional moral reasoning is associated with greater delinquency, cheating, dishonesty, risky sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, bystander apathy and aggression. Work and family values are about pay, hours, promotions and material benefits for families. Family problems are solved through shouting, demands and making concessions.  In one study, increasing moral reasoning abilities led to less post‐release recidivism.

In contrast, Post-conventional moral reasoning is associated with cooperation, whistle blowing, leadership, civil disobedience, altruism and political participation. Work and family values center around social ideals and justice. Family problems are solved through considering other perspectives.

Moral reasoning abilities are enhanced by cognitive development, authoritative parenting styles, peer discourse about conflictual moral issues and participating in caring institutions. Peer discourse called “transactive discussion” involves reasoning about other people’s moral reasoning and attempting to understand and operate on it.

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