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The Origins of FairnessReview - The Origins of Fairness
How Evolution Explains Our Moral Nature
by Nicolas Baumard
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Michael Klenk
Sep 6th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 36)

Who hasn't got a view about tax policies? Or on reproductive rights? As Nick Enfield puts it in the foreword to Origins of Fairness "we are seldom in doubt as to what should be done" but it remains mysterious where this "sense of right and wrong come[s] from." Nicolas Baumard defends the view that morality originates in a sense for mutual benefit and tries to show that such a view has credible naturalistic underpinnings.

Baumard's central thesis is that morality is based on an innate and universal moral sense that follows a 'mutualistic' logic: it balances out self-interest and the interest of others for a mutually beneficial outcome. Baumard's thesis is profoundly reductionist: on his view, moral phenomena turn out to be computations of one's interest and the interest of others. Such reductionism might appeal with its simplicity, but it leaves too many open questions on Baumard's account. Below, I first give an overview of Baumard's main arguments and then argue that neither of his two central arguments is convincing.

Baumard's argument involves four main parts. In the first part, Baumard explains what the human capacity to make moral judgements is and where it comes from. He takes up the ideas of early British proponents of moral sense theory, such as Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith, and argues that morality depends on an innate, universal, and domain-specific moral sense (49). So, all human beings are born with a disposition to evaluate the world in a similar way. The fact that we often find people disagreeing, especially about moral matters, is problematic for Baumard's theory. In response, Baumard argues that the apparent diversity disappears upon closer inspection since it "can be explained by differences between the situations that people find themselves in, or the information that is available to them" (79). Next, Baumard argues that the moral sense has a biological function that humans acquired through evolutionary processes (54).

In part II, Baumard turns to the content of moral judgements, what he calls their 'logic', to explain the process of selection that shaped the human moral sense. Baumard bases his understanding of morality on a biological market model. On the biological market for cooperation, "individuals who are naturally disposed to restrain their selfish instincts and cooperate fairly" are favored (62). Let's call them 'mutualists'. Actors on the market will prefer to cooperate with mutualists, shun selfish actors, and exploit altruists; hence being a 'mutualist' is the winning strategy on the cooperation market. Baumard emphasizes the importance of reputation, arguing that it obviates the need to postulate punishment or inter-group competition as essential ingredients in the evolution of our moral sense (62). Since reputation is crucial, cheating is not a good strategy as "evolution will select [actors] who are genuinely disposed to act morally" (67). The cooperation market is based on a model, of course, but Baumard finds that the socio-ecological environment of our early ancestors allowed for free partner-choice and the identification of individuals, yet were isolated enough to prevent cheaters from switching to other markets, which makes his biological market model applicable (71-2). In short, the cooperation market favours characteristically mutualistic evaluations, and it is responsible for our moral sense. Therefore our moral sense is geared towards or follows the 'logic' of "considering each person's interest impartially" (72). It is important to note that Baumard uses the market model not metaphorically, but literally. It requires actors exchanging goods, in this case, cooperative effort, bidding for the best deal, which in this instance might be determined by the ratio of an actor's own effort against the expected effort mustered by one's trading partner. I write 'might' because Baumard, unfortunately, elucidates the details of his the market model only quite economically, as I will show below.

Parts III and IV extend his argument by arguing against competing 'logics' of morality, what Baumard calls 'utilitarian' and 'virtue' morality, respectively. The general thrust of Baumard's arguments is to consider what moral intuitions should be like if either of the rival conceptions of morality was true, and then to argue that the predictions do not apply, or that the mutualistic logic better explains the evidence. For example, Baumard argues that since utilitarian theory prices overall outcomes above anything else, we should be prepared to make personal sacrifices. However, people do not regard sacrifice as moral and instances that look like it can easily be explained in the logic of mutual interests. So, utilitarian 'logic' is not what underlies our moral judgements (161). Similarly, proponents of 'virtue' ethics claim that morality is based on a potpourri of psychological dispositions such as sympathy and disgust, yet if that were the case we would regard sympathy as moral. But we regard as moral only those things that relate to fairness, so sympathy is not a part of morality, although it might correlate with it (178). Hence, Baumard concludes, a "single mutualistic logic underlies the apparent diversity of moral principles" (126).

The above should make clear that Baumard's argument is wide-ranging and potentially establishes a sweeping conclusion. However, I am unconvinced by both of his central theses.

First, it remains ambiguous how Baumard seeks to explain away the phenomenon of moral disagreement. Moral disagreement arguably involves the distinction of non-moral facts and moral facts about which people might disagree. You might think that killing fish is wrong, and you might think so because you believe that fish feel pain. Others might disagree, but it is often unclear whether the disagreement lies in a differing appraisal of the non-moral facts (do fish feel pain?) or of the moral facts (does fish-pain matter?). As pointed out above, Baumard's thesis rests on the claim that all apparent moral disagreements turn out to be non-moral disagreements, and he explains this in reference to various influencing factors such as customs and rituals. He also refers to reasoning (40) and 'framing effects' (79) as explanations of non-moral disagreement. The latter is meant to refer not to "differences in available information as such, but in how it is presented" (79). The problem with this explanation is twofold. First, Baumard seems to draw a carte blanche in understanding 'framing effects' very broadly: if subjects were only looking at matters in the right way, they would forgo their apparent disagreement. That is all right as a stipulation, but Baumard needs to show more evidence that this is actually the case. Second, it appears difficult in principle to supply such evidence, since it matters which information one considers as part of the morally irrelevant framing effect and which one considers to be counting morally. In ruling out information that does not pertain to fairness-aspects as morally irrelevant framing effects, it seems as if he puts the cart before the horse in analysing what morality is. There are other convincing arguments for the universality of moral judgements (e.g. Joyce 2001) but judged by Baumard's arguments alone, readers should be cautious about accepting his skeptical conclusion regarding moral disagreement and his related claim that the content of the moral sense is universal. Moreover, it is a pity that Baumard does not engage with contemporary proponents of moral sense theory to a greater extent, particularly as he regards his account as an heir to the early British sentimentalists. Prominent contemporary proponents of the theory do not share Baumard's view that the moral sense is innate (Jesse Prinz) or exclusively intuitive (Daniel Jacobson), and it would have been interesting to learn how Baumard replies to their arguments.

Second, Baumard's central argument for explaining "how the sense of fairness actually works" (71), confined to a meagre seven pages, is unsatisfactory and the little that he says implies that the argument fails. First, we learn that the mutualistic logic of the moral sense favors "a compromise … between egoism and altruism" (72) and evaluations considers "each person's interest impartially" (72). The latter cannot be right, since Baumard's market model implies that our moral sense should exclusively be concerned with the interest of persons with whom we stand in cooperative relationships. I take it that this is what Baumard means, but then it remains unclear how our moral sense demarcates those with whom we are engaged in mutualistic relationships from those who are not so engaged with us.

Setting this aside, the question is how the moral sense computes the interests of all involved parties. Baumard focuses on a study of perceived justice in economic relations by Kahnemann et al. For example, a car dealer takes advantage of a supply shortage and raises the price of the sought-after model. The majority of subjects found this "unacceptable" and Baumard infers that subjects did not consider the dealer's behavior moral since he "failed to respect the customer's interests" (73). Baumard is using 'interests' in a psychological sense: customers prefer a cheaper car, and the dealer does not respect this preference. So, our moral sense says 'unfair'. However, this understanding of interest conflicts with what we should expect, given Baumard's market model. The dealer is not frustrating any interests as determined by supply and demand. Indeed, this is how Baumard understands 'interests' at other times. Ethnographic evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers do not share equally with all of their group, but instead favour those with whom they have beneficial relationships. Baumard evaluates this as a case of social interactions that "respect everyone's interest" (71). However, in the psychological sense of 'interest', they clearly don't respect everyone's interest. Even those without closer ties to the Hunter would prefer to gain from his kill as much as his cooperative partners do. Here, Baumard is using interest in an economic sense which implies legitimate or to-be-expected interests given supply and demand. This is indeed what his market model commits him to. Surprisingly, however, Baumard's looser understanding of 'interest' is not merely a slip, but an integral part of his understanding of the moral sense's logic. In his analysis of people's judgements about the car dealer, the salary of sports stars, and other cases, he suggests that it is part of our moral sense to react negatively toward those who exploit a "positional advantage" gained by luck or coincidence (78). In other words, he argues that our moral sense is not restricted to justice but extends to duties of aid and solidarity. We feel that one ought not to take advantage of the market-clearing price for cooperative efforts. But this amendment is striking. Metaphorically speaking, Baumard suggests not free-market capitalism, but a regulated social market economy, which restrict excessive advantage of individual actors. Germany's Ludwig Erhardt is commonly credited with implementing the latter on a broader scale in the 1950s. However, it is profoundly unclear which process played the regulatory part in Baumard's story. He does point out that it is nice to have dutiful people around, which is why they might have been preferred on the cooperation market (77). Well, that might be the case. But it seems very likely that a physically strong and clever chap with, say, hereditary access to valuable resources would have commanded a high price on our early ancestor's cooperation market. Hence, our moral sense should not be affected by nuances such as whether or not a cooperative partner earned his advantageous position. Baumard's story requires us to think of 'innovators' who competed with this powerful chap by offering dutiful behavior out of the blue. This presumably would have implied ignoring the market clearing price for cooperative efforts and occasionally giving more than one receives. In effect, early innovators seem set-up for exploitation, and it is not clear why others would value dutiful behavior when it has not even evolved yet. To sum up, if Baumard is right that the cooperation market model explains our moral sense, then it is unclear why we care about duty. If we do care about duty, as it is the case, then the market model as presented by Baumard cannot explain it.

Finally, Baumard mentions the "need to cooperate" (72) that creates a market in cooperative partners in the first place. However, he never explains why this 'need to cooperate' came about and does not mention it amongst the necessary ecological condition for the cooperation market to develop. I cannot judge whether he assumes the question to be uncontroversial or whether he has simply overlooked it. In this regards, readers are advised to refer to Tomasello's recent discussion of the importance of interdependence amongst cooperative partners.

In conclusion Baumard's explanation of how the moral sense 'actually works' does not go far enough to illuminate the hollow principle of "mutual respect for the interest of all" (74). Though Baumard's main arguments do not convince me, readers interested in contractualist normative theory might benefit from his exposition of the theory in the light of evolutionary theory. Baumard writes without using many technicalities and so the book should be accessible for the non-specialist reader, too.



Jacobson, D. 2012. Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Stupefaction, Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, 2: 289–316.

Kahnemann, D., Knetsch, J., Thaler, R. 1986. Fairness as a constraint on profit seeking: Entitlements in the market. American Economic Review 76 (4), 728-741.

Prinz, J. 2007. The Emotional Construction of Morals. Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, M. 2016. A natural history of human morality. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


© 2016 Michael Klenk


Michael Klenk, Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy, Utrecht University, The Netherlands.


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