Deciding What’s Fair

Listen 48:56

“It’s not fair!” That’s a common refrain anyone with kids is familiar with. From the time they learn to talk, kids begin protesting the innumerable injustices of everyday life — slices of cake that aren’t quite big enough, bedtimes that are earlier than their siblings’, play times cut short by unexpected weather.

And that obsession with fairness stays with us throughout our lives. It helps shape our relationships and personal values — along with our government, social systems, and national identity. So where does this fundamental drive toward fairness come from? How do we define what’s fair — and who gets to decide?

On this episode, we explore fairness, and how we learn to understand it. We hear stories about how algorithms are redefining what counts as fair — and why critics say they’re doing the opposite; the neuroscience behind why we care so much about what’s fair and what isn’t; and the complicated fight to distribute donated organs in a more equitable way.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • People with chronic conditions often have to pay out of pocket for medications that keep them alive and well. Dan Gorenstein from the health policy podcast “Tradeoffs” joins us to discuss efforts and ideas to bring more fairness to the insurance system.
  • More than 100,000 Americans are on a waiting list for life-saving organ transplants that only a fraction will receive. Art Caplan, founding head of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s School of Medicine, explains how the organ distribution system works, and how it could be improved. We also hear from two people who are currently waiting for transplants. If you want to learn more about becoming an organ donor, visit
  • We talk to one of the creators of the MIT website Moral Machine, which seeks human input on questions of fairness in artificial intelligence.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal