Thoughts on Fairness

As a parent I hear about fairness all the time.   “It’s not fair!” is the usual form.  This declaration piques my interest because it seems to me that kids, and thus all people, have an innate sense of the rightness of fairness.  Yet a call for fairness from my kids, as in much political copy, is a weapon.  They appeal to fairness in an effort to improve their own situation.

The task that I accept is to change the understanding my children have about fairness.  This is no easy chore.  I try to teach them to act in fairness at all times but never to expect to meet with fairness from others or from circumstances.

To appeal for fairness necessarily means that one had a reasonable expectation of fairness.  I see nothing reasonable about that expectation.  There is nothing fair in the universe.  It is no more fair for Paris Hilton to possess fabulous wealth than it is for innocent lives to end abruptly.

Knowing the inequity of the wide world yet to repeat appeals for fairness also requires a belief in authority – corporeal or temporal – that can recognize, administer, and impose fairness.  Setting aside the theological implications, the existence of an infallible Earthly authority is something that has never existed and has ever led to suffering and injustice when attempted.

To the point, fairness can only exist in microcosm, if at all.  An example is a game with defined rules, roles, a beginning and an end.  Even there the faculties each side brings to a game, from choices made to the influence of luck or error, manifests unfairly.  In any macro environment, such as the physical world, fairness is impossible and may well be unnatural.

In his closing remarks during the October 3, 2012 Presidential debate, President Obama used the word “fair” thrice in his final two sentences.  From young children to the President of the United States, an appeal to fairness is a persistent and powerful inclination.  So strong is the word that we should strip away its embellishments and explore its core.

Most of the work is done for use by John Rawls, the eminent American philosopher.  In simplified paraphrase, Rawls arrived at the notion that justice is fairness, and fairness is justice.  In his expression discrimination and corruption are unjust in a way akin to economic and/or social inequality.  Rawls greased the slippery slope that permits a national leader to argue that reality is unfair and thus in need of correction.  Rawls made it possible for the well educated to justify use of a child’s accusation to impose his version of order on the world.

Life is not fair, that is the phrase I most remember from elementary school.  Teachers, coaches, parents all said it repeatedly.  There was even a librarian who followed that declaration with the ominous “the world needs ditch diggers too.”  Then, it was said that John F. Kennedy was responsible for the phrase “life isn’t fair,” today the apocryphal attribution is to Bill Gates.  It does not matter because it is true, a cultural adage that survives through its own necessity.

Fairness, the word, is an ambiguous concept mostly devoid of real value.  We should be reminded of C.S. Lewis who wrote in Mere Christianity that some words have been denigrated from a descriptive term to nothing more than a compliment.  Lewis cited the term “gentleman,” which once meant a person who held land, a title, and a coat of arms.   In recent times, said Lewis, “gentleman” means nothing more than “someone I like or approve of.”  The same has occurred with fairness.

One person lives a long life; the other suffers a childhood illness.  One is born beautiful, another ugly.  Some gifted with charm, wit, intelligence, or grace, while others are dim, boorish, or merely indifferent.  There is no fairness between the lion and the lamb.

There are those, acolytes of Rawls, who crave the imposition of fairness.   Some mean well, other mean only to claim authority for themselves.  In either case, their efforts are at best doomed, at worst they become a form of bondage stripping liberty away from some to bestow benefits on another.

Even if they accept worldly fallibility, the faithful still seek heavenly fairness.  They may be right, but that infinite authority is not exerted on the passing of days.  It is here, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition that the existence of free will is manifest.   Yet I believe that by returning to the theological we can get a better understanding of fairness.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.”  It continues, “the just man … is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct.”  Quoting Leviticus, the Catechism says, “you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.”

Clear as usual, there it is in the teaching of the Church.  Fairness is not an outcome but a condition.  Fairness is impossible to achieve and wrong to impose, but it is a valued virtue to be developed.  Fairness is a skill to be honed and practiced.  As responsible adults have ever told children, the reality is that life is not fair.  Fairness is a habit of mind meant to guide personal behavior not a weapon to wield against other men.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Fairness

  1. Excellent treatment of a difficult topic, Jason. Being a father of two boys, I’ve heard the same complaints and, yes, they get the same explanations of the ‘way the world actually works’ that you and I did growing up.

    Plenty in there to deserve a re-read.

    Oh, and you get bonus points for including the word “thrice”.
    May have to drop that into one of my conversations today, just for heck of it…

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