Fair Play

Fair Play

The speed with which the British electorate has turned against Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, according to all opinion polling in recent days, would be surprising if you forget that most British of concepts: fair play.

Fairness is innate in all human beings, a hardwired part of our instinctive behaviour that is seated in two parts of the brain associated with both aversion and reward. It is almost impossible for humans to avoid responses of revulsion at seeing or experiencing unfairness; we also inescapably feel pleasure at seeing or experiencing fair treatment.

The basic nature of fairness, its central role in our being as a species, combined with the frequency with which it arises as an issue in our daily lives, were the two factors that set me to writing my book: To Be Fair – the Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century.

My theory, expanded at excessive length with many examples, is that humans are the dominant species on this planet because they are the only ones to have harnessed the twin forces of life: co-operation and competition. My view is that we did this by using a feeling instinctive in our make-up that apparently exists hardly anywhere else in the animal kingdom: the feeling we call fairness.

One of the simplest forms of fairness is the idea that, once a group of people bands together for security and prosperity and in doing so exchanges personal sovereignty for a collective one, anyone selected by the group to administer their collective sovereignty will not abuse the power vested in them. They will bring about codes of conduct for society which we call laws, but they must also obey them. It is unfair for them not to do so, because that is the deal: if something is right for all, it is right for all.

We experience this in simple forms from our earliest years. In playground games, if one participant is set aside as the referee, or judge, we assume that they will offer fair interpretation of whatever rules the game takes. Collective refereeing rarely brings about satisfactory competition and biased refereeing destroys any chance of it.

Yet human beings have since their earliest origins relied on a successful balance between collectivism and rivalry, or in other words between co-operation and competition, to survive and indeed, to dominate the planet we all share, for good or ill.

To achieve that balance, as I say, we harnessed the instinct we call fairness. We developed a strong aversion to unfairness because, as we lived in larger family and clan groups where sharing DNA with each other was not a strong enough bond, we needed to have guarantees that our place in the hierarchy of our band was safe. Losing our place in that hierarchy was a threat both to our survival and also to the likelihood we would be able to reproduce our own genes.

Similarly, showing fairness to others not only contributed to the collective fair nature of our society, but also primed others to treat us fairly in return and, more subtly, increased our reputation for good citizenship in ways that could later be beneficial.

With its dual nature – the revulsion against unfairness takes place in a very primitive part of the brain called the anterior insular which is home to all our ‘disgust’ reactions, while the satisfaction felt at experience of fair treatment is found in frontal areas associated with reward – fairness is more than just equality or justice or integrity. It is all of those and more.

Speakers of the English language are unusual in having a separate word “fair” – derived from Old Norse “faygre” meaning good or attractive – whereas in almost all other languages the word used to translate “fair” would also be used to translate another word such as “just” or “equitable” or “righteous”.

Cause and effect are often hard to determine in a culture, but perhaps it is because English-speakers had this separate definition that they were also the first to begin to write down the rules of what had previously been loosely-agreed conditions for playing various games. As a result of codification of what was and was not allowable in a fair competition, it became possible during the 18th and 19th centuries for people from widely different places, backgrounds and eventually nationalities to competed co-operatively on a sports field: this was what we call fair play. Though one might question whether FIFA is the ideal organisation to promote the concept, football’s world governing body has made the phrase ‘fair play’ a global one.

Back to Boris Johnson. Given all the above, it is simple to see why we have such visceral feelings. He is the referee. Those about him are the ones who administer our collective sovereignty. Yet they have behaved as if they are not subject to it. They are our appointees, but they have failed in the essential task of obedience to the same laws that we appointed them to administer.

Human beings value fair play above all other concepts, whether they realise it or not. You can argue whether or not the British have played fair by the rest of the world, but nobody cares more about it. As the occupants of Downing Street have already discovered.

Ben Fenton is the author of To Be Fair: The Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century (Mensch Publishing)