(Readers Note, this is not a short discussion!)
So who ever said life should be fair? It seems of late (this campaign season) that all I am hearing everywhere is about fairness. Somewhere, somehow, I must have missed some proclamation. There must have been some fundamental shift of the polls, or a radical discovery somewhere deep in the cosmos, because I have been operating for all of my life under the safe and secure knowledge that life was not fair—never was!
In my youth, when academics governed my acquisition of knowledge and much of my existence, before life stepped in and modified the theory with practical experience, I studied, chemistry, biology, physics, and other natural sciences. In all my studies in the natural sciences ,I have seen nothing anywhere that tells me life is fair. Nowhere have I seen any natural system that is predicated on fairness. I also had an interest in philosophy and religion, and took some classes in these subjects and in my life have read much more in these areas. With the exception of only rare occasions, and those typically only in discussion of the pursuit of an ideal, no religion seems to espouse the theory of the innate fairness of the universe nor in us a people. So I am perplexed how this “Fairness” thing has now become a reality without me hearing about it.
What does it mean to be fair?
fair 1 (fâr)
adj. fair·er, fair·est
- Of pleasing appearance, especially because of a pure or fresh quality; comely.
- Light in color, especially blond: fair hair.
- Of light complexion: fair skin.
- Free of clouds or storms; clear and sunny: fair skies.
- Free of blemishes or stains; clean and pure: one’s fair name.
- Promising; likely: We’re in a fair way to succeed.
- Having or exhibiting a disposition that is free of favoritism or bias; impartial: a fair mediator.
- Just to all parties; equitable: a compromise that is fair to both factions.
- Being in accordance with relative merit or significance: She wanted to receive her fair share of the proceeds.
- Consistent with rules, logic, or ethics: a fair tactic.
- Moderately good; acceptable or satisfactory: gave only a fair performance of the play; in fair health.
- Superficially true or appealing; specious: Don’t trust his fair promises.
- Lawful to hunt or attack: fair game.
- Archaic Free of all obstacles.
- In a proper or legal manner: playing fair.
- Directly; straight: a blow caught fair in the stomach.
tr.v. faired, fair·ing, fairs
To join (pieces) so as to be smooth, even, or regular: faired the aircraft’s wing into the fuselage.
- A beautiful or beloved woman. (Old English fæger “morally pure, unblemished” – late 12c.)
Like most abstract concepts, even the definition of fairness depends on your point of view and the subject matter. The thefreedictionary.com definition at the left shows that fair has many meanings in many contexts. It also shows that the original form of the word specifically related only to a beautiful or beloved woman. Like the word cute, which originally meant bow-legged, our concept of fair has changed much over time. So if we can’t count on the definition, what is fairness?
What is it?
So, what is fairness anyway and why all of the sudden do we expect it? Why do we think we have a right to it? Why, given thousands of years of history to the contrary, do we think we can get it even if we wanted it in the first place? And, do we really want fairness for all or do we just want fairness for ourselves? Is fairness a real thing or just some perception, some passing fancy on which we are now pinning our hopes of ending our own struggles for survival? If fairness is really a perception, is it not then that life is innately unfair?
Why do we think fairness is real?
To me, the idea of fairness as an attainable concept seems to be something that comes in the night to people that move from struggling for their day to day existence, to some level of affluence. Those who believe in fairness seem to arrive at this belief either from their success or their failure to succeed. Lest you think I am being duplicitous, let me explain further.
Some of those that arrive at the concept of fairness due to their success, seem to me to be those who have achieved some level of affluence in excess of what they expected they were due; based largely on the effort they put in to achieve their success. In other words, they now have some level of personal guilt over what they now have. Some, instead of embarking on a direct philanthropic effort to help others, decide that the method of their success was not fair and now want to change something to make it such for everyone. But those changes actually make it unfair for others who are doing the same thing to be successful and remove their opportunity to achieve parity, replacing it with granted (not achieved parity)
Others arrive at the concept of fairness based on their failure to achieve and compete in some way. In an effort to justify the failure of achievement, they seek analysis as to the outside circumstances that caused the fault. In any analysis like this they will find casuations outside their control. In no way am I trying to say that these causes are not real. They very well may be real and have had a real effect. The end point, whether the cause is real or imagined, is the same. Convinced that it is simply a matter of abject fairness, people seek some form of redress in order to gain a different outcome. Regardless, the end is the same. An inherently arbitrary equalization system results.
The politics of calculation?
I have heard a number of times, likely based more on anecdotal evidence, that the country is divided 50/50. Perhaps it is true the 50% of us would respond that we believe life should be expected to be fair and the other 50% would respond, it is not fair and we should not expect it to be so. Politically this would appear a non sequitur. Why then has history shown that the political promise of fairness is so successful? Because, like most things political, when you look beneath the surface, the obvious, you will find the intrinsic value to the politician on selling the promise of fairness and equality.
Of the 50% that say they believe in life’s innate fairness, it is much more likely that regardless of what is said in the polls, only about 20% believe fervently that life can be fair and the remaining 30% say it because they think that such a concept will lead them to additional attainment. This 30% neither truly believe life is fair nor do they really want fairness. What they want is to get part of that the others, who have been lucky enough, worked hard enough, or were unscrupulous enough to get more than they have. Whether they earned them, or not, is not part of the equation. The basic nature of this thought is based on the fact that life is not fair, they got more because it was not fair and only with some intervention that arbitrarily shifts the unfairness in my direction will I get the appearance of it being fair. And it is the appearance, not real fairness that is the politician’s key.
Political fairness, historically, has not equaled equality.
Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.
Most of the great philosophers debated the issue of fairness, and likewise debated the issues of equality. Up until more recently the two issues were not intertwined. For instance, Solon, was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet from 638 BC – 558 BC. Justice, for Solon, was not an arithmetical equality: giving equal shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic concept of distributive justice, but it was equity or fairness based on difference: giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive them. The same ideas of political order, leadership, and justice can be found in Plato’s dialogues.
For Plato, like Solon, the starting point for the inquiry about the best political order was the fact of social diversity and conflicting interests, which involve the danger of civil strife. The political community consisted of different parts or social classes, such as the noble, the rich, and the poor, each representing different values, interests, and claims to rule.
In Plato’s great work, Republic, he describes four virtues that are the characteristics of a good political society: justice, wisdom, moderation, and courage. Plato described justice as the equity or fairness that grants each social group its due and ensures that each “does one’s own work.”
Wikipedia cites Fairness and Justice are often confused.
According to most contemporary theories of justice, justice is overwhelmingly important: John Rawls claims that “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” Justice can be thought of as distinct from and more fundamental than benevolence, charity, mercy, generosity or compassion. Justice has traditionally been associated with concepts of fate, reincarnation or Divine Providence, i.e. with a life in accordance with the cosmic plan. The association of justice with fairness has thus been historically and culturally rare and is perhaps chiefly a modern innovation [in western societies].
Studies at UCLA in 2008 have indicated that reactions to fairness are “wired” into the brain and that, “Fairness is activating the same part of the brain that responds to food in rats… This is consistent with the notion that being treated fairly satisfies a basic need”. Research conducted in 2003 at Emory University, Georgia, USA, involving Capuchin Monkeys demonstrated that other cooperative animals also possess such a sense and that “inequity aversion may not be uniquely human” indicating that ideas of fairness and justice may be instinctual in nature.
So why drive to get what we know is naturally unobtainable?
For many, the base concept of fairness is a diversion, a mere bauble, a trinket to dangle in the eyes of those that want it to be true, and something that can even be sold to those that don’t. It’s a dream for sale!
Assume for a minute the country really is one-half believers in innate fairness and the other half cynics. From a political perspective, the hopeful believe in the dream and will buy it at almost any cost with their votes. The cynics don’t believe it but, some of the cynics recognize that the dream provides a sociologically and politically correct way to justify getting more from someone else. The concept of fairness fosters the action of redistribution or reallocation because those that believe life should be fair will support the program of accommodation.Some Cynics correctly calculate that they will receive a gain. What they have been unable to attain by a survival of the fittest process, they can now get through the believers voluntary capitulation to a government imposed re-equalization fueled by their guilt. This proceed adds relative value or assets to what the Cynics naturally received through competing in the “unfair” manner. The process is now innately and hypocritically even more unfair because these Cynics are receiving “fairness” based on an unfairness to others resulting from a concept they do not believe in the first place.
This is now so ingrained in our political mind that right or wrong, fairness has now become the watchword and income redistribution the measure!
But is life really fair?
Bill Gates said: “Life is not fair; get used to it.”
This is an interesting question, and perhaps it is the most important one to answer before we embark on yet another generation of programs geared to seeking government equalization for perceived unfairness. One thing we need to consider is that much of our history and knowledge rules against the concept that life is, or could be, fair.
Theory of Evolution sides against life as fair!
Since the theory of evolution (according to the extreme right-wing conservatives) is a liberal theory, you would think that it might provide some basis for the concept that life is fair. Darwin’s theory, even the modern modified form of it, is predicated on the main concept of survival of the fittest. Those that do not survive, fail to reproduce as much as others more capable and therefore over time the advantageous characteristics of the fittest survive, and the disadvantageous characteristics of the rest of the species die out. Clearly this is not a very fair system to those that don’t make it to the next evolutionary step now is it?
Creation Theory sides against life as fair!
So if evolutionary theory is a bastion tenant of the left, let us look at the extreme left-wing view of what is a bastion tenant of conservatives—Creationism. Once again, this theory also does not support the concept of life as fair. Let us just look at one point of many. As God dropped the innocent Adam and Eve into the Garden of Eden, he set up one thing that they could not do. They could not eat the apple. Now is that fair? Eve didn’t think so! The non-biblical theory of creation is rife with the inherent conflicts and accomplishments that brought man forward from historic to modern times. It was man’s ambition, effort, and conquests that defines his steps to modernity. No where in this theory is the concept of fairness used to illustrate mankind’s gains. In fact in many of the illustrations it was mans innate unfairness that gave one group an advantage over the other.
Big Bang theory sides against life as fair!
OK lets look to pure science. According to the Big Bang Theory, the universe began, perhaps after a great cyclic gravitational contraction, with a large explosion. Everything that existed prior to the explosion was destroyed and released anew as pure energy. As the universe cooled all the various forms of matter formed according to what we know of the laws of physics, and the chaos of the explosion became replaced with some relative and random order. So according to this theory you have a massive destruction of something that gradually re-consolidates into something else. Clearly, this was not very fair for that which got destroyed now was it?
I guess it could be called the ultimate in income redistribution!
No government process yields fairness
The United States, by all external accounts, has one of the fairest judicial processes in the world. Hundreds of thousands of pages of rules and laws have been written and established with fair justice as the principal goal. Yet, look at the O.J. Simpson trial, or more recently, the Casey Anthony Trial. Ask most Americans if the outcome was fair and they will tell you that both of them got away with murder. Clearly, our own experience shows us that life is not fair and no government can provide fairness.
In an odd way, the system itself recognizes life is not, nor ever will be, fair. Our form of justice is not as much about fairness as it is equalization of injustices, both perceived and real, by the transfer of some value or asset from the defendant to the plaintiff. Even things that are clearly recognized as accidental, now include compensation for the victim as part of the “fairness” concept of justice. In the early 1800s through the mid-1900s, liability for damage due to death from addictive patent medicines rested in the hands of the person who purchased it and chose to take it. If you used a piece of equipment in the 1840s or 1850s and you lost a finger—well, its a shame you lost the finger, stuff happens you know!
Today, for some, by no means all, such events become a life changing payday. Our concept of fairness has evolved much over the last century or so.
Point of View
Fairness is clearly just a point of view. The concept means different things to different people, at different times, and in different circumstances.
Aurthur Brook, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, defines fairness this way:
We are not a perfect opportunity society in the United States. But if we want to approach that ideal, we must define fairness as meritocracy, embrace a system that rewards merit, and work tirelessly for true equal opportunity. The system that makes this possible, of course, is free enterprise. When I work harder or longer hours in the free-enterprise system, I am generally paid more than if I work less in the same job. Investments in my education translate into market rewards. Clever ideas usually garner more rewards than bad ones, as judged not by a politburo, but by citizens in the marketplace.
Others define fairness on some system of compensation for perceived, or real, inequality. But in such calculations, one persons fairness is another person’s unfairness.
While the goal of Affirmative Action is to offer incentives, subsidies, and other compensating systems to change the future results in favor of those who were viewed to have been historically treated unfairly, what is fair for the recipient is now unfair for some, if not many, of those who now do not get the benefit. If such systems are compensation for past unfairness, at what point does the balancing cross over to real unfairness in the other direction? What system is in place to measure and determine the point for the balancing re-equalization to stop? Initially, such systems may appear fair but they are not universally fair.
Look to the movie “Unforgiven” when Hackman’s character says in his dying breath, “I’m building a house. I don’t deserve it.” and Clint’s character says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.”
Universal fairness, in the end, is the concept that belies the concept of fairness in the first place. What may seem fair for one set of people and one circumstance is seldom fair for others, or perhaps for all. For the sake of argument, let us assume that Theory of Evolution is correct and the continued survival of a species is based on its continuing evolution through the mechanism of survival of the fittest. If this is true, then our modern healthcare system—that is solving for all the inter-species competition and environmental damage that normally would be spelling death knells for individuals, or seriously impacting their ability to reproduce—is prohibiting this survival of the fittest process from taking place. Therefore, it might be argued, modern healthcare is not innately fair for the species as a whole. It can also be argued that keeping people alive to an older and older age where their productivity for the benefit of the species becomes much less than what they consume is also innately unfair. Yet, none of us as humans make this argument, or myriad others that could be made, because we believe we are a special species on this planet that feel and care for others of our own kind. Now, we also even significantly express care about the other species as well, sometimes to our own fiscal detriment. Is this well founded enlightenment or is it simply a long term strategy of our own species’ self destruction?
Fair Use, Fair Trade, Fair Employment, Fair Market Value, all use different fundamental concepts or measure of fairness. Often, in the end, fairness adds up to being the political concept of equal treatment for some based on the justifiable unequal treatment of others.
While I am going to be using the President in the following example, I see the same thing from the candidates on the other side of the aisle. Please do not draw the conclusion that I am only finding fault with President Obama. I n fact, I find fault with them all on this point!
For this election, President Obama is now decided to use the main theme (sound byte, talking point, mantra – you pick it) of Fair Shot, Fair Share, Fair Play. In these moments he contra-poses the hope of fair with the negative of things like the mortgage foreclosure crisis or the stock market collapse, or the “greed” of wall street and the rich corporations. Without stating it directly, first he imparts the message that we should expect fairness and it can, in fact, be attained. Secondly, he is building the image that only he is fair and anything else is not fair. He makes the statement that everyone should be able to buy a home but does not discuss whether or not they should have the requirement to afford the home in the first place. If they can’t get the loan, for whatever reason then the lender is not fair. If they buy the home and now the lender wants to collect or repossess the home than the lender is not fair. He uses terms like unscrupulous in these cases to paint a broad picture.
Clearly, some lenders are unscrupulous, just as some people seeking loans are also unscrupulous. But being a lender does not directly equate to being unscrupulous any more than being a borrower automatically equates to deadbeat. While one side can quote statistics to show how all the lenders did such-and-so to be unfair to home buyers, conversely the national statistics on upside mortgages and home mortgage defaults leads one to draw the conclusion that a large part of borrowers are deadbeats. Neither of those assumptions are of course true.
Framing the argument for his re-election in such a lopsided way is indirectly and in some cases directly, instilling in the public that they have a right to own a home regardless. If they, you know those unscrupulous people, don’t loan you the money or you can’t pay it back it is they, the unscrupulous, that are unfair…
The President in a recent video discussing fairness said, “Congress cannot end the year taking money out of the pockets of working Americans.” But, in the end, that is what all government fairness programs really do. They do not provide fairness, they provide unequal treatment for some to provide equal treatment for others, usually based on a specious and arbitrary determination. When it is the result of a political issue then it is simply unequal treatment for the group that is the numerically the smaller group of voters for the benefit of the larger voting block. This is why our founding fathers were so adamant that we became a republic, not a democracy!
In the President’s case, perhaps it is that he simply believes his system is fair because the Working Americans he favors deserve more fairness that all the rest of us.
As Hamlet said, “…Therein lies the rub: for in that sleep of death we know not what dreams may come…”
But then again, maybe we do!
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Very good website you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get responses from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Appreciate it!
I do not know of any chat locations off the top of my head. I would recommend you follow me on twitter and you can reply and re tweet there. It is a good asynchronous forum. @twloker
My Mother had a different definition for fair, it was an event that happened in St. Mary’s County the third week of September every year; a place and a time that was anticipated for many reasons, not the least of which was a day off from school to attend. A place where horse manure, candied apples, hot roasted peanuts and baled hay blended to create an improbable pleasurable sensory memory. One so ingrained that the mere thought of the word Fair brings about a momentary smile, momentary because along with all of the pleasantness that I associate with the word there is that other thing.
Raising a family of eight children meant that there were immeasurable opportunities for one or the other of us to run to our Mother bellyaching “it’s not fair….” about whatever perceived slight that we felt at the moment. To which my Mother’s response was always the same, “you are right it’s not September” and if it were September she would say “you’re right that’s in two weeks” or “yes that’s right the Fair is next weekend”. I was schooled early on in life that fairness was not something that was automatic and that sometimes things happened that weren’t fair, but the world didn’t end because of it and the expectation was that you got over it quickly and moved on.
Do I think that I have been treated unfairly in my life; of course there are times when I have believed that to be the case; a prime example is the deltas that still exist in pay scales between males and females. Is that fair? To the hell no, as my daughter says, but to be fair let me say that this pendulum swings both ways. Have I been afforded unfair advantages in my life? Although I am having a hard time thinking of a good example I am sure that there are those around me who think that I have. So the idea that everything has to be fair and that people who have worked hard, been lucky or had good fortune are expected to sacrifice to level the playing field for those who have not been as lucky, or worked as hard or been less fortunate is as foreign to me as the thinking that everyone should make the basketball team.
I believe that goodness and generosity is innate within the human race and that left to our own devices we will provide for the deserving among us who have not fared so well. I am sure some hackles are raised by my use of the adjective deserving, after all who am I to determine who deserves? Well I would be the benefactor and as such it is my personal moral compass that guides me to conclude who I think needs and deserves my assistance. The beauty in this is that each of us is guided by our own morals, our own political views and our own reasons for picking those that we chose to assist and because the human race is so diverse in its individual choices and thought processes I believe that it is probable that no one would be left out. If only the Government would get the hell out of our way and let us get back to the business of being neighbors……..it just doesn’t seem fair.
Pam that is one of the best replies I have ever received to one of my articles. And let me add something stimulated by your basketball comment. Here in CA sports is about as non-competitive as you can make it. If a kid wants to play a sport there are many levels that have absolutely no criteria of skill or competitive spirit. That is not to say that all are leagues and levels are non-competitive, some are. But even in many of the ‘competitive’ leagues they operate from the premise that there are no losers.
As you know growing up, that concept was anathema to us. Our parents, teachers, and coaches reminded us every day that life was hard and to survive you needed to be confident in your abilities, compete and be strong, be tough and generous, win with grace and lose with dignity. When I first moved to California, the local soccer league had “quiet” games. No one was allowed to cheer for their team. Now, you can cheer for a team but you are not supposed to single out a player… Their idea, again, is that this could damage someones self esteem. Well hell, by their measure my self esteem was damaged on a daily basis at FHW, or Leonard Hall, or Ryken. I believe it ultimately made me a better man for it–perhaps others will say, “oh that explains it!!!” But, in the end, I don’t have a self esteem problem. I learned that I can be, and do, whatever I put my mind and effort to. I think this is a much more important characteristic than feeling like one is inherently entitled to all because I am innately a winner…
Thanks for your great comment!
It is easier to sacrifice great than little things.