In my last blog, I explained how young children can only view the world from their own perspective because they have not yet developed a so called ‘theory of mind’. This is why young children have a different idea of what is fair than adults. Of course, if you’re the only one with needs and wishes, it certainly isn’t fair if you cannot have everything. When children start to understand that other people have their own unique individuality with their own thoughts, needs and wants, children start to see fair as something that involves others as well. Usually the rule of thumb to determine fairness becomes ‘sharing equally’. However, this still differs from what adults consider as fair. So what is this next stage in development of the concept of fairness all about?

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Fairness for adults
After developing the theory of mind, children seem to use a rule to determine what is fair, namely ‘sharing equally’ or equality.  In many situations, this rule is used by adults as well. When two people compete over one cookie, let’s break it and both eat half of it. But in other situations our concept of fairness is more complex.

For example, in earlier times people would get ‘an eye for an eye’, which literally meant that if you did something bad to someone, the same bad would be done to you. Nowadays, most of us do not believe this is fair anymore and we have a judicial system with its courts and prisons to help us understand what is fair in a criminal situation.

Another example are the social services. Most adults do believe in some form of social services, whether it is for child benefit, for the elderly, for the sick or the poor. Many of us will benefit from social services at least once in their lives. Considering fairness as the rule of equality, this hardly seems fair. How can it be fair if some (the poor) get money for free whereas others (the not-so poor) have to work very hard to earn their wages? So what does guide our thoughts when the rule of equality does not apply? The influential theory of Kohlberg’s moral stages of development might help us understand.

Kohlberg’s moral stages of development
Kohlberg said that children when they grow up move through different stages of moral development. These stages are tied up with the concept of fairness, or perhaps we should say ‘justice’, even before the theory of mind is fully developed. Kohlberg defined six stages, and believed that most people would move through the first four stages during childhood. However, the fifth and sixth stage would not be reached by everyone and Kohlberg himself never found enough people who had reached the sixth stage to prove this stage was actually real.

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  1. Preconventional morality: during this stage, children let their ideas of right and wrong (and fair and unfair) be decided by the punishments or rewards it produces. Taking everything must be unfair, because it produces punishment. Sharing equally is often rewarded in young children, so must be right.
  2. Individualism and exchange: children in this stage may have already developed (parts of a) theory of mind, and know other people have other perspectives. However, self interest is still a strong guide in their reasoning about morality. The four year old who thought giving away his third train was unfair because then he only had two might have found himself in this stage.
  3. Good interpersonal relationships: children usually enter this stage when they are also entering their teenage years. Relationships become more important and this is what guides thinking about fairness and justice. Somethingunlawful might still be seen as fair when the intentions were good, such as in Kohlberg’s own example; stealing medicine might be seen as fair when they are stolen with the intention to save another’s life.
  4. Maintaining the social order: in this stage, people become concerned about society and maintaining social order. We should uphold the law and use democratic principles to change things that are ‘wrong’ in the law, because this is how we all agreed to do things so doing it this way is fair and just.
  5.  Social contract and individual rights: this stage continues upon the previous, but now people start to look at the wider picture. Sometimes laws and individual rights may be conflicting; which perspective should we take now? People at this stage invented social services and welfare, and are the ones to believe in it and uphold it, whereas people in stage 4 merely feel that social services are ‘fair’ because they are part of our social order which should be upheld.
  6. Universal principles: Kohlberg believed in a sixth stage in which people are guided by universal principles in their moral reasoning and their beliefs about fairness and justice. However, he could not find enough people who had actually reached this stage to further define and prove the existence of this stage.

What is fair?
By now we have seen that at least two influential developmental theories seem to play a role in the development of the concept of fairness. No wonder that we at times cannot comprehend children’s beliefs that ‘it is not fair!’, or even other adult’s. So the question remains; what is fair? It could be something different to all of us. I think it is important to keep this in mind in your communication with others, children especially. They are not lying when they say something is not fair, or looking for attention, they really believe so. Perhaps a little bit of extra explanation and support can help them overcome this feeling and help them learn to take another perspective.

This post was originally published on my old website on Sep 2nd, 2013.

For more reading about Kohlberg’s stages of Moral Development, here’s an interesting chapter!

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