“That’s just unfair,” Springoff the First said as he saw the Four of Clubs.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard one of my kids claim something was unfair.  We’ve all heard it.  We’ve all said it.  Here on DKos, hardly a day passes without someone writing about fairness, whether explicitly or implicitly.  We say it when life hasn’t given us or someone else what we think they deserve, for good or ill.  It happens often enough that you’d think the universe is fundamentally unfair.  But is it? (More)

Fair, Not Fair, or Unfair?

This week we’ve explored Homo narratus, humans as a storytelling species.  We not only like to tell stories; it’s fair to say use stories to organize stimuli into experience.  And sometimes the stories we use cause us problems.

We began by exploring two common forms of human storytelling.  Wednesday we looked at age-and-change narratives, those “When I was your age” stories we endured as children and now make our children and grandchildren endure.  Thursday we had fun with geographic hardiness narratives, where regions compete for who endures the worst of Mother Nature’s offerings.  Yesterday we looked at pessimistic “the story of my life” narratives, and how they can lead us into self-fulfilling prophecies.  Today we look at fairness narratives.

“The summer of poker.”

Casa Crissie got swept up in the poker craze along with the rest of the country a few years back.  The summer of 2004 was more than a bit crazy here in South Blogistan anyway; that’s the year we got hit by hurricane after hurricane, and Ivan looped around and hit us twice.  The year the phrase “generator envy” entered the South Blogistani patois.

Here at Casa Crissie, we tried to distract ourselves by playing home poker tournaments.  It was either that or graph our rising anxiety as we watched the Cone of Uncertainty narrow to the Arrow of Doom time and time again.  The eyes of two hurricanes passed directly over our home, though both were weak enough that we had no real damage.  But we did have a lot of time to kill.  It was Springoff the First who christened it “the summer of poker.”  Better than “the summer of sardines,” which would express both our diet when we lost electricity and how we felt being cooped up inside against the wind and rain.

Springoff the First and I were heads up at the end of one of many such tournaments.  I peeked down at a pair of red Fours, and put in a small raise.  He looked at his cards and doubled my raise, the minimum raise allowed by the rules.  I put him on an Ace and another big card, a very strong hand heads-up.  A small pair against two higher cards is called a “coin flip” or a “race” for a reason: the small pair, while a pair, is only a slim favorite to win the pot once all the cards are dealt.  As I didn’t want to put the outcome on a coin flip, I just called his raise.

We were playing Texas Hold’Em, where each player gets two pocket cards face down, and five community cards are dealt face-up on the table.  Players try to make the best five-card hand from their two pocket cards and the five community cards.  Players bet after they see their pocket cards, then again after the first three community cards (the Flop) are placed on the table, then again after the fourth community card (the Turn), and again after the fifth community card (the River).  We were playing no-limit, meaning we could if we wished bet all of our chips at any time.

So I was happy to see the Four of Spades on the Flop, alongside the Ace and Jack of Diamonds.  If Springoff the First had a big Ace, as I guessed he did, he’d made a pair of Aces.  But I’d made three-of-a-kind with my pocket Fours plus the Four of Spades.  I checked, hoping he’d bet so I could put him all-in.  He checked back.

Hrmm.  He wouldn’t check a pair of Aces in a heads-up pot, not with the Ace and Jack of Diamonds out there.  There were too many possible drawing hands that he wouldn’t want to give a free card.  But he might check two pair, hoping I’d missed the Flop and would catch something at the Turn.  I refined my initial read and put him on Ace-Jack.

The Turn card was the Six of Hearts, a “blank” in that it didn’t match anything from the Flop.  I put in a healthy bet, and sure enough he came back with a big raise.  Yup.  He must have Ace-Jack.  “All-in,” I said.

“Call,” he replied, before I finished the word “in.”

He turned up two Aces.  I thought I’d been luring him into betting, and it turned out he’d been luring me into betting.  Oops.

Then came that Four of Clubs on the River, giving me four-of-a-kind.  And then I heard the words every poker player – indeed every one of us – has heard and said so often: “That’s just unfair.”

It wasn’t “fair.”

He’d had the best hand all along.  He’d made all the right decisions, and got me to put all of my chips in as a 43:1 underdog.  There were 44 cards remaining unseen, and exactly one card – the lone remaining Four – that I could catch to win.  And I caught that one card.  I didn’t win by making better decisions, although given what I knew I played the hand as well as I could.  But poker is a game of limited information, and what I didn’t know was that I was way behind from the start, and even farther behind when all the chips went in.  I got lucky.  Plain and simple.

So if by “fair” he meant that he deserved to win because he’d played a better hand correctly, then he was right.  It wasn’t a “fair” outcome.  

But it wasn’t “unfair” either.  I hadn’t cheated.  We have an automatic card shuffler here at Casa Crissie, not to stop cheating but because it’s easier on Herself’s arthritic fingers and it doesn’t wear out the cards as quickly, and Springoff the Fourth was dealing.  The machine had given a fair shuffle, and Springoff the Fourth had dealt the cards correctly by the rules.  Texas Hold’Em is a seven-card game, after all.

It was “not fair.”

So it wasn’t “fair,” and it wasn’t “unfair.”  It was “not fair.”  The deck and dealer were not “fair” in that neither was intent on rewarding the best play.  But neither were they “unfair” in the sense of favoring either of us arbitrarily.  The deck was randomly shuffled, and the deal was by the rules.  The process was “fair,” but the outcome was “not fair.”

And I’ve found that’s often the case with our fairness narratives.  We think the universe should reward good choices and punish bad ones.  That fits the common Judeo-Christian narrative of a universe governed by an ominiscient and omnipotent God who gives each of us what we deserve.  But that narrative is a selective reading of the Bible.  It ignores the keen observation in Ecclesiastes 9:11 that:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

For all that conservative Christians rail against the randomness of evolution, arguing God would not allow a random universe, their own text says that’s exactly what happens.  The wisest and most discerning among us are often poor, and those with the greatest ability do not always gain the greatest favor.  Sometimes we just get lucky, or unlucky.  “Time and chance overtake them all.”

Fairness is not an arbitrary desire.

Our impulse to fairness is not arbitrary.  Human children, long hypothesized to be egocentric and inherently selfish, show signs of understanding fairness very early in life.  Indeed we may be born with it.  Studies have shown a fairness impulse in dogs, and we see it in other primates:

So we didn’t invent the notion of fairness out of thin air.  And that makes sense, as we’re a social species with genetic diversity over a wide range of cognitive and physical skills.  The fairness impulse would offer an evolutionary advantage: we’re more willing to cooperate, and delegate specialized tasks to those best able to do them.  So while we’ve not yet proven that we’re born with a fairness impulse, we shouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be true.

But the universe is “not fair.”

The universe won’t drop fairness in our laps, even if we’re hardwired to expect it.  In the film, the nuts were not divided equally by an act of fate.  Vulcan offered the tool, and showed Virgil how to use it when Virgil got confused.  Virgil got to the nuts, and shared them after Vulcan asked by reaching through the screen.  It was a process of communication and cooperation.  They worked it out.

And that’s what we humans have to do if we want fair outcomes.  We have to work it out, communicating and cooperating.  We still won’t always get fair outcomes, but we give ourselves the best opportunity for fairness.

That’s why I offered to cook what Springoff the First requested for dinner.  That’s usually the prize in poker tournaments at Casa Crissie: first one eliminated does the dishes and the winner picks the dinner menu.  The cards were not fair, but he and I still could be.

Of course, Mother Nature still held a veto.  Good thing he asked for peanut butter sandwiches.  I was tired of sardines.


Happy Saturday!