What is Fair? Who Decides? Why Should We Care?

What is Fair?

“Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

“When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

“Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?”

There are three aspects of fairness that I can think of.

First, there is the philosophical debate of fairness.

On that level, there is much disagreement about what it even means or how it applies to real life. It’s easy to have an ideal of fairness, but applying it is obviously difficult. The ironic part is that one person’s ideal of fairness would seem unfair to others, even if it could be effectively applied.

I would throw in religion along with this for philosophizing about fairness would inevitably lead to theological issues. Also, religion plays a major role in either ensuring more fairness such as in helping the disadvantaged or assuaging the negative emotions related to living in an unfair world, although religion probably ends up doing more assuaging than actually helping. Whether philosophical or theological, our beliefs to a large part determine our sense of fairness.

However, our beliefs about fairness can just as easily be used to rationalize unfairness. A belief in fairness isn’t the same thing as a sensitivity to fairness. Something like religion can be used to defend or challenge unfairness. And the best way to defend unfairness is by trying to control the perception of unfairness which is why beliefs, especially collective beliefs such as religious doctrines, are often a battleground. The conflict is that almost everyone has a belief about fairness and yet few people probably have a strong personal sense of fairness. A sense of fairness can never be limited to a belief and will often contradict beliefs. Shared beliefs exist to constrain the personal moral sense to a colletive worldview.

Second, I don’t think fairness is just an abstraction or just a personal belief.

Fairness definitely relates to a shared human nature. There are certain situations that most humans will judge as being fair or unfair. So it isn’t merely subjective or rather it is a subjective sense that is shared by most. However, some people are born with a stronger sense of fairness (I suspect that research on thin boundary types would show a correlation to a sense of fairness, and of course such conditions as sociopathy and psychopathy would show the opposite correlation).

The cynical side of me predicts that people sensitive to fairness tend to not gain much power and wealth for having more than others would probably seem unfair to someone with a strong sensitivity to fairness. What this would mean is that we’d be ruled mostly by people with weak senses of fairness which would go a long way to explain the behavior seen in politics and big business.

On the other hand, fairness isn’t just something we are born with or not. Fairness could be fit into various models of psychological and spiritual development. There are many different factors in life that will determine the probability of our developing a strong sense of fairness and unfairness. But it isn’t a simple accomplishment for if it were society would be a much more fair place.

Third, the personal component is very clear.

Our preferences (our likes and dislikes) often determine what we judge as fair and unfair. We tend to get used to life being a certain way which creates in us a sense of privilege in that we think things should continue in the way that we’ve become comfortable with.

This would relate to my previous comment about wealth and power. We all gain a certain sense of privilege in what we come to expect as normal, but some people obviously have more privilege than others. This fits an observation that I’ve had and I’m sure many others have had. Those with more privilege (more control over their own lives and over the lives of others) tend to believe life is fair (that they deserve what they have because of hard work, talent, good genetics, good upbringing, etc). And those with less privilege tend to believe life is unfair.

When those with less privilege seek to gain a more equal share of privilege, those with more privilege perceive that as being unfair. Since privilege is often seen as a zero sum game, fairness itself can be seen as a zero sum game. Many people believe life can’t be fair or not fair for everyone and so they seek to gain or maintain their own sense of fairness for themselves, even if at the cost of fairness for others.

So, those who benefit from the status quo will typically see the world as fair and those who are harmed (or at least not helped) by the status quo will typically see the world as unfair. This is why the upper classes, including the middle class, often speak of a meritocracy even when facts are shown to them that income inequality is growing and economic mobility is shrinking, even when facts are shown that racial prejudice still persists and still has massive impact on people’s lives. This is why poor whites, what little privilege they have because of race, will tend to see the world as relatively more fair than how poor minorities will tend to see it.

Those who fight to make society more fair usually come from underprivileged and disadvantaged demographics. Growing up experiencing poverty or hunger, unemployment or homelessness, racism or oppression will tend to create an acute sense of what is and isn’t fair. It also usually takes someone who perceives themselves as having less to lose to fight for greater fairness for all. So don’t ask a fat man about the fairness of the access and availability of food.

I’m of the opinion that fairness isn’t just an opinion. It can be measured (through government records and scientific research). Economic inequality can be measured. Economic and social mobility can be measured. Racism and other forms of prejudice can be measured. In fact, we already have measured these factors. We know the world isn’t fair. That isn’t an opinion. That is a fact.

The question at hand is simple: How far are we willing to go to fight unfairness? What are we willing to do or even sacrifice in order to guarantee greater fairness for all? I’m willing to be most people don’t think we are doing enough as a society.

I would, though, add a cautionary note. I pointed out that the world is more unfair that most privileged people realize, but the opposite would also be true. Those who have experienced a lot of unfairness directed at them personally are likely to assume that society is more unfair than it actually is. There is a difference about the fairness in any given circumstance and the overall fairness. Also, just because the average person experiences or perceives relative fairness, that doesn’t disprove that there aren’t specific demographics that are still being treated unfairly. Generalizing based on personal experience can be the opposite of helpful which is why objective data should be given more credence than beliefs and opinions.

The complication of all this can’t be denied. Nonetheless, that complicatedness just confirms the importance of the issue for the issue of fairness includes every aspect of society.

“Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?”

I think this is inevitable. We must start from an awareness of a lack of fairness for fairness isn’t something that is found in nature like a rock that can be seen and touched. Fairness, first and foremost, is about relationships between people and relationships aren’t tangible things. Fairness impacts the tangible world and can take on tangible forms, but it begins in the intangible which isn’t to say it’s just an idea.

Fairness is built into our DNA. As social animals, as mammals with complex emotional experience, as higher primates with a moral sense, fairness is built into our very sense of reality. We embody fairness or the potential for it. The awarenss of fairness begins with the awareness of unfairness just as awareness itself begins with unawareness.

However, as evolved creatures, our moral sense evolved in relationship to the larger world. Fairness isn’t separate from the world we inhabit for we are part of the world, co-evolution. Humans are far from being the only animal with a sense of fairness.

It seems to me that fairness is a perfectly natural experience. It isn’t just an idea or belief that humans are forcing onto the world. However, the main problem modern humans face is that we have created a social system (i.e., civilization) that is very different from the natural environment within which human nature evolved. So, our sense of fairness might not perfectly fit the social system we’ve created. This might be another way of explaining our beginning with a sense of the lack of fairness. On a fundamental and often unconscious level, maybe we realize that civilization is an imperfect expression of our inborn moral nature and as civilized humans we feel an inner division, a basic wrongness, a social conflict (something that religion tries to pinpoint with ideas such as Original Sin and Karma).

This brings to my mind the writings of Thomas Paine. In Agrarian Justice, Paine argues that unfairness (in terms of social injustice and economic inequality) isn’t natural, even if it is the apparent beginning point of modern Western society. The following is how Paine explains it:

“Whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.

“To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

“Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.

“The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

Going by this argument, humans in their more ‘natural’ state (i.e., simpler social structure) experience a basic fairness in that there is less opportunity for vast inequalities. It isn’t clear that the poorest of the poor are better off in civilization than they would be as hunter-gatherers. Either way, the richest of the rich certainly gain/take the vast majority of the benefit created by modern society. Among the billions of people on the planet, almost all of the wealth and land in the world is owned by a handful of individuals and families. A person couldn’t honestly and morally claim that to be fair.

So, in the civilization we are born into, unfairness is the beginning point for all of us. What many have argued is that this shouldn’t be the beginning point, that we shouldn’t accept unfairness as normal and inevitable.

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