I reflected some more on the nature of fairness, and the nature of selfishness, in light of my recent political experiences. I was a little surprised, and a little scared, by how easily the mind can flip from an attitude of "let's figure out what's fair" to "me-me-me-me-me!" Evidently the wiring for both programs is present in my brain, and either can be activated at any time, with very little cognitive dissonance.
An image keeps coming to mind -- a scene from a movie. Actually, an archtypal scene that turns up in almost every action/adventure/thriller/drama movie. Three guys (they might be women, but usually men) are standing around facing each other at a cautious distance. They are all heavily armed (guns, swords, mystical powers, whatever). They all know each other, either through long collaboration or long competition or usually a little of both. Some treasure is in their midst -- cash from a bank heist, the Ark of the Covenant, the last piece of bread, whatever. They all want it. They may or may not be willing to share it. None of them completely trusts the others, however. The tension is excruciating. Dialog ensues. On the surface, they are negotiating, cooperating, suggesting . . . but the audience knows that at any moment the talk may end and guns will blaze.
The scene could resolve in any number of ways. The tension might be temporarily postponed: "Look, we're never gonna get out of this cave if we're shooting each other." New alliances might form, and enemies become friends: "You're right. We must defeat the Warlock . . . together!" But more often than not, guns will blaze and only one will be left standing. Regardless of the outcome, the scene pivots on the same question: is it time for trust, or is it time for shootin'?
Note that the characters on stage could be all bad guys, or all good guys, or a mix of good and bad guys, or a mix of totally ambiguous characters. It doesn't really matter. The soul of drama lives in the one question: trust or fight?
It's no coincidence that this question is wound throughout practically every story we bother telling. The dynamic tension is built in to human nature. We are built to trust, and we are also built to fight. We have friends and we have enemies. Our big brains are primarily dedicated to sorting the one from the other.