Arien Mack is Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at the New School University's Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. She is the editor of Social Research, an international quarterly of the social sciences, and director of the Social Research conference series. She is also director of the Journal Donation Project. Dan Doernberg of Fairness.com LLC interviewed her via email a month before the beginning of her April 14-15, 2005 Social Research New York City conference "Fairness: It's Role in Our Lives".
Fairness.com: Congratulations on organizing such a wonderful conference; we wish you and the Social Research staff the very best of success with it. Was its genesis more a matter of current events or new research findings?
Arien Mack: Conferences in the Social Research series, of which Fairness is a part, all share at least one characteristic: they all address urgent and frequently contested social issues. So in the past, our conferences have looked at issues of international justice and war crimes; privacy; and the AIDS epidemic; to name just three (http://www.socres.org/aboutus.htm#Conferences lists our thirteen past conferences). We also try to locate all the subjects our conferences confront within the context of their histories.
The Fairness Conference is no exception. We chose to organize this conference now because there seems to be far too much evidence of a patently unfair divide between the haves and the have-nots, whether we look within the US at the rich and the poor, or at the northern countries of the globe in comparison to those in the south. This seemed more than enough of a rationale for trying to look at the subject of Fairness. I also became aware of recent neuroscience that seemed to be shedding new light on our perceptions of fairness. In fact, the very first session of the conference includes speakers who will talk about and describe a new field of research known as neuroeconomics. Odd as this may seem, these researchers are studying the nature of brain events correlated with the playing of games like the Prisoner's Dilemma, in which perceptions of Fairness are paramount.
Have there been other conferences in recent years or decades addressing Fairness broadly like this?
I don't know, but I don't think it matters, because the issue is of enough importance to warrant any number of conferences. Moreover, even if there have been conferences on Fairness in the past, my guess is that they won't have addressed the issue in the way we are, trying to weave together the economics, the neuroscience, the political science, the philosophy, and the juridical rulings.
What makes Fairness an important intellectual/academic topic? My impression is that for much of the 20th century it was regarded as too subjective and too prone to bias for serious discussion and study...
Fairness is a major component of John Rawls's theory of justice [Ed.-- e.g. A Theory of Justice and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement], which has been front and center in political theory for a long time, and there is a strong interest in what we perceive as fair among both psychologists and economists. And even though what we perceive to be fair is a judgment and therefore at least partly subjective, this does not make it unimportant. All our qualitative judgments, whether moral or aesthetic, are subjective in the same sense, but this does not disqualify them as concepts of great intellectual importance and interest. In fact, it enhances their interest. Moreover, there is now evidence that the roots of our sense of Fairness can be found in primate behaviors and Prof. Frans De Waal will be talking about this evidence at the conference.
The thematic statement of the conference notes children's preoccupation with Fairness, i.e. "That's not fair!". What significance do you attribute to this preoccupation (or to it's seemingly lesser significance to adults)?
The reference to the early sense of fairness in children was included in the statement about the conference because it pointed to the early developmental emergence of this concept. In fact, Frans De Waal, who is speaking in the first session of the conference, will talk about his work on Fairness in primates, which certainly points to the evolutionary roots of our own concepts of fairness and makes what we perceive as "fair" far less subjective.
Your CV says that your areas of concentration are visual perception; consciousness and cognition; meaning and attention; experimental psychology. What led you to get interested in Fairness and related, less quantifiable issues?
The answer to why, as a perception psychologist, I have been organizing conferences, is quite simple, as it turns out: I live a double intellectual life. In one of these lives I am a professor of psychology who does research on perception and attention, and in the other I run a number of projects both engaging intellectual ideas and seeking to make a difference in the intellectual and educational life in developing countries. In that other life, since 1970, I have been editing Social Research, a journal of ideas - - ideas we try to examine from many different perspectives, both within and outside of the social sciences. So we have done issues on subjects ranging from Shame and Courage to the transitions to democracy in East and Central Europe. Our forthcoming issue is on "Errors: The Consequences of Big Mistakes in the Natural and Social Sciences."
How do you see the history of the New School (and perhaps the Social Research conferences in particular) influencing the approaches taken in organizing this conference?
Historically, the New School has been a place where issues of social importance have mattered a great deal. The New School's Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, which is the home of Social Research, had its origins in what was called the University in Exile, which the first president of the New School created as a place to which he could bring eminent and courageous scholars, mostly German Jewish scholars, whose lives were threatened by the Nazis. So I see the Social Research conference series as completely consistent with the New School's concern for social issues and issues of Fairness.
Sen. John Edwards is delivering the keynote speech; was there concern that conservatives might criticize his selection as partisanship undercutting the overarching theme of Fairness?
One function of the keynote speaker is to attract an audience, so we try to choose people who are highly visible and also appropriate. John Edwards certainly qualifies as well known and well qualified to speak about the issue of fairness and some of the unfairnesses that we are currently experiencing within our society. While it is never our intention to present a completely partisan view, I think it is fair to say that the New School now and in its past is rightly associated with a commitment to liberal policies. Certainly, people on both the left and right of the political spectrum might find fault with particular speakers, particular sessions, or even the choice of a conference subject, but they are welcome to come to the conference and raise questions about the issues that concern them during the period in each session of every conference devoted to an exchange between the speakers and the audience.
What do you hope will come out of the conference?
I look at these conferences as forms of public education, so at the very least I hope the people come, and those who read the issue of Social Research devoted to the proceedings of the conference, will in fact have learned something important. This seems to me the most anyone can hope for. It is why we always invite students to attend our conferences without charge, and encourage professors to bring a class when we have the space.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I'd like to congratulate you on the fairness.com website. You are doing wonderful and much-needed work, which I hope will continue.
--- End of Interview ---
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