Fairness And Charity As Value Propositions

February 5, 2009 · Filed Under Mediation - General · Comment 

 By Dave Finch

Successful negotiators come in various packages, but a nearly common denominator of this species is concern for the appearance in any proposal of fairness, or at least, that any appearance of unfairness be diminished as much as possible.  Fairness or the perception of fair treatment can be hugely important whenever one side to a controversy attempts to sell his proposed resolution to the other.

Exactly why this is so may as well as any other explanation be attibuted to primordial needs resulting in a conditioned response.  Sharing of food and resources by our primitive ancestors made economic sense.  If my cousins are healthy and motivated they will do their share of the hunting and gathering and battling of hostile tribes.  Over time these practices might have developed a moral sensibility.  He who shares, if not exactly equally, at least in a way perceived as sufficiently equitable, is righteous and trustworthy and deserving.  I rarely mediate a case without seeing this heuristic at work.  There is usually an emotional reaction to any proposal that seems not only inadequate to the goal of resolution but “unfair” in concept, and the negotiation is often set back and troubled until the unfairness wrong appears to have been righted.

 Relatedly, the opportunity to be charitable is also a value proposition.  Studies have shown that the brain activity that occurs in relation to  performing a charity is not one whit different from that which occurs when we get paid for completing a task.  Adam Smith put it this way in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments:  “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of  others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”.

This feature of human nature will often have implications in negotiation.  A person being asked to pay or otherwise give up something might be  persuaded to see the proposal not as greedy unfairness on the part of the other, but as an opportunity to do a charity to meet a legitimate need.  To the extent this might be possible it certainly depends upon tactics that include demonstating concern for the other party and his interests, and an earnest search for the fairest outcome.  In other words, the communication process will have to be infused with good will.  Wow!  Has anyone ever seen this happen before, the skeptic oppugns?  The answer is, yes.  Perhaps not frequently, especially when anger and resentment have been provoked in litigation.  But, the negotiator should not rule out the possibility of taking advantage of this humanly natural tendency.