Democratic Values in Balance or Opposition

At the New Yorker, Nathan Heller has an interesting piece about equality and freedom, The Philosopher Redefining Equality.

Mainstream American thought sees them as oppositional. But maybe the common ground between them is fairness. There can be neither equality nor freedom in an unfair society, although there can be liberty in an unfair society. That goes off on a tangent, but keep it in mind as background info. A society of freedom is not the same as a society of liberty, and a society of fairness might be a whole other thing as well. Yet it has been argued that English is the only language with exact words for all three concepts (see Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness) — for example, George Fletcher in Basic Concepts of Legal Thought writes,

“Remarkably, our concept of fairness does not readily translate into other languages. It is virtually impossible to find a suitable translation for fairness in European or Semitic languages. As a result, the term is transplanted directly in some languages such as German and Hebrew, and absent in others, such as French, which is resistant to adopting loan words that carry unique meanings.” (quoted by Manny Echevarria in Does Fairness Translate?)

The difference between the two cultural worldviews and ideological systems is what led to both the English Civil War and the American Civil War. This conflict has been internalized within American society, but it has never been resolved. Americans simply have pretended it went away when, in reality, the conflict has grown worse.

Heller writes about the experience and work of Elizabeth Anderson. She has been, “Working at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, social science, and economics, she has become a leading theorist of democracy and social justice.” And, as related to the above, “She has built a case, elaborated across decades, that equality is the basis for a free society.” Freedom isn’t only closely linked to equality but built upon and dependent upon it. That makes sense from an etymological perspective, as freedom originally meant living among equals in sharing freedom as a member of a free people, at least a member in good standing (ignoring the minor detail of the categories of people excluded: women, slaves, and strangers; but it might be noted that these categories weren’t always permanent statuses and unchangeable fates, since sometimes women could become warriors or divorce their husbands, slaves could end their bondage, and strangers could marry into the community). Hence, this is the reason the word ‘friend’ has the same origin — to be free is to be among friends, among those one trusts and relies upon as do they in return.

Fairness, by the way, is an odd word. It has an English meaning of fair, handsome, beautiful, and attractive (with some racist connotations); nice, clean, bright, clear, and pleasant; moderate as in not excessive in any direction (a fair balance or fair weather, neither hot nor cold) but also generous or plentiful as in considerable (a fair amount). And in various times and places, it has meant favorable, helpful, promising good fortune, and auspicious; morally or comparatively good, socially normative, average, suitable, agreeable, with propriety and justice, right conduct, etc; which overlaps with the modern sense of equitable, impartial, just, and free from bias (from fair and well to fair and square, from fair-dealing to fair play). But its other linguistic variants connect to setting, putting, placing, acting, doing, making, and becoming; make, compose, produce, construct, fashion, frame, build, erect, and appoint. There is an additional sense of sex and childbirth (i.e., fucking and birthing), the ultimate doing and making; and so seemingly akin to worldly goodness of fecundity, abundance, and creation. The latter maybe where the English meaning entered the picture. More than being fair as a noun, it is a verb of what one is doing in a real world sense.

Interestingly, some assert the closest etymological correlate to fairness in modern Swedish is ‘rättvis’. It breaks down to the roots ‘rätt’ and ‘vis’, the former signifying what is ‘correct’ or ‘just’ and the latter ‘wise’ (correct-wise or just-wise in the sense of clockwise or otherwise). This Swedish word is related to the English ‘righteous’. That feels right in the moral component of fairness that can be seen early on its development as a word. We think of what is righteous as having a more harsh and demanding tone than fairness. But I would note how easy it is to pair fairness with justice as if they belong together. John Rawls has a theory of justice as fairness. That makes sense, in accord with social science research that shows humans strongly find unjust that which is perceived as unfair. Then again, as freedom is not exactly the same as liberty, righteousness is not exactly the same as justice. There might be a reason that the Pledge of Allegiance states “with liberty and justice for all”, not liberty and righteousness, not freedom and justice. Pledging ourselves to liberty and justice might put us at odds with a social order of fairness, as paired with freedom, equality, or righteousness. Trying to translate these two worldviews into each other maybe is what created so much confusion in the first place.

All these notions of and related to fairness, one might argue indicate how lacking in fairness is our society, whatever one might think of liberty and justice. Humans tend to obsess over in articulating and declaring what is found most wanting. A more fair society would likely not bother to have a world for it as the sense of fairness would be taken for granted and would simply exist in the background as ideological realism and cultural worldview. From Integrity in Depth, John Beebe makes this argument about the word ‘integrity’ for modern society, whereas the integral/integrated lifestyle of many tribal people living in close relationship to their environment requires no such word. A people need what is not integrated that is seen as needing to be integrated in order to speak of what is or might be of integrity.

Consider the Piraha who are about as equal a society as can exist with fairness only becoming an issue in recent history because of trade with outsiders. The Piraha wanted Daniel Everett to teach them learn math because they couldn’t determine if they were being given a fair deal or were being cheated, a non-issue among Piraha themselves since they don’t have a currency or even terms for numerals. A word like fairness would be far too much of a generalized abstraction for the Piraha as traditionally most interactions were concrete and personal, as such more along the lines of Germanic ‘freedom’.

It might put some tribal people in an ‘unfair’ position if they don’t have the language to fully articulate unfairness, at least in economic terms. We Americans have greater capacity and talent in fighting for fairness because we get a lot of practice, as we can’t expect it as our cultural birthright. Unsurprisingly, we talk a lot about it and in great detail. Maybe to speak of fairness is always to imply both its lack and desirability. From the view of linguistic relativism, such a word invokes a particular wordview that shapes and influences thought, perception, and behavior.

This is observed in social science research when WEIRD populations are compared to others, as seen in Joe Henrich’s study of the prisoner’s dilemma: “It had been thought a matter of settled science that human beings insist on fairness in the division, or will punish the offering party by refusing to accept the offer. This was thought an interesting result, because economics would predict that accepting any offer is better than rejecting an offer of some money. But the Machiguenga acted in a more economically rational manner, accepting any offer, no matter how low. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game,” Henrich said” (John Watkins, The Strangeness of Being WEIRD). There is no impulse to punish an unfairness that, according to the culture, isn’t perceived as unfair. It appears that the very concept of fairness was irrelevant or maybe incomprehensible the Machiguenga, at least under these conditions. But if they are forced to deal more with outsiders who continually take advantage of them or who introduce perverse incentives into their communities, they surely would have to develop the principle of fairness and learn to punish unfairness. Language might be the first sign of such a change.

A similar point is made by James L. Kugel in The Great Shift about ancient texts written by temple priests declaring laws and prohibitions. This probably hints at a significant number of people at the time doing the complete opposite or else the priests wouldn’t have bothered to make it clear, often with punishments for those who didn’t fall in line. As Julian Jaynes explains, the earliest civilizations didn’t need written laws because the social norms were so embedded within not only the social fabric but the psyche. Laws were later written down because social norms were breaking down, specifically as societies grew in size, diversity, and complexity. We are now further down this road of the civilizational project and legalism is inseparable from our everyday experience, and so we need many words such as fairness, justice, righteousness, freedom, liberty, etc. We are obsessed with articulating these values as if by doing so we could re-enforce social norms that refuse to solidify and stabilize. So, we end up turning to centralized institutions such as big government to impose these values on individuals, markets, and corporations. And we need lawyers, judges, and politicians to help us navigate this legalistic world that we are anxious about falling apart at any moment.

This interpretation is supported by the evidence of the very society in which the word fairness was first used. “The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony,” pointed out David Hackett Fischer in Fairness and Freedom (Kindle Locations 647-651). “These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness.” This interpretation is based on a reading of the sagas as written down quite late in Scandinavian history. It was a period when great cultural shifts were happening such as radical and revolutionary introductions like that of writing itself. And I might add, this followed upon the millennium of ravage from the collapse of the bicameralism of Bronze Age Civilizations. The society was under great pressure, both from within and without, as the sagas describe those violent times. It was the sense of lack of fairness in societal chaos and conflict that made it necessary to invent fairness as a cultural ideal and social norm.

It’s impossible to argue we live in a fair society. The reason Adam Smith defended equality, for example, is because he thought it would be a nice ideal to aspire to and not that we had already attained it. On the other hand, there is an element of what has been lost. Feudal society had clearly spelled out rights and responsibilities that were agreed upon and followed as social norms, and so in that sense it was a fair society. The rise of capitalism with the enclosure and privatization of the commons was experienced as unfair, to which Thomas Paine was also responding with his defense of a citizen’s dividend to recompense what was taken, specifically as theft not only from living generations but also all generations following. When a sense of fairness was still palpable, as understood within the feudal social order, no argument for fairness as against unfairness was necessary. It likely is no coincidence that the first overt class war happened in the English Civil War when the enclosure movement was in high gear, the tragic results of which Paine would see in the following century, although the enclosure movement didn’t reach full completion until the 19th century with larger scale industrialization and farming.

As for how fairness accrued its modern meaning, I suspect that it is one of the many results of the Protestant Reformation as a precursor to the Enlightenment Age. The theological context became liberal. As Anna Wierzbicka put it: ” “Fair play” as a model of human interaction highlights the “procedural” character of the ethics of fairness. Arguably, the emergence of the concept of “fairness” reflects a shift away from absolute morality to “procedural (and contractual) morality,” and from the gradual shift from “just” to “fair” can be seen as parallel to the shifts from good to right and also from wise (and also true) to reasonable: in all cases, there is a shift from an absolute, substantive approach to a procedural one.” (from English: Meaning and Culture as quoted Mark Liberman in No word for fair?)

Nathan Heller’s article is about how the marriage of values appears like a new and “unorthodox notion”. But Elizabeth Anderson observes that, “through history, equality and freedom have arrived together as ideals.” This basic insight was a central tenet of Adam Smith’s economic philosophy. Smith said a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality. It simply wasn’t possible. Full stop. And his economic views are proclaimed as the basis of Western capitalism. So, how did this foundational understanding get lost along the way? I suppose because it was inconvenient to the powers that be who were looking for an excuse to further accumulate not only wealth but power.

It wasn’t only one part of the ruling elite that somehow ‘forgot’ this simple truth. From left to right, the establishment agreed in defense of the status quo: “If individuals exercise freedoms, conservatives like to say, some inequalities will naturally result. Those on the left basically agree—and thus allow constraints on personal freedom in order to reduce inequality. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin called the opposition between equality and freedom an “intrinsic, irremovable element in human life.” It is our fate as a society, he believed, to haggle toward a balance between them.” For whatever reason, there was a historical shift, a “Post-Enlightenment move” (Echevarria), both in the modern meaning of fairness and the modern deficiency in fairness.

That still doesn’t explain how the present ideological worldview became the dominant paradigm that went unquestioned by hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans and other Westerners. Direct everyday experience contradicts this neo-feudalist dogma of capitalist realism. There is nothing that Anderson observed in her own work experience that any worker couldn’t notice in almost any workplace. The truth has always been there right in front of us. Yet few had eyes to see. When lost in the darkness of a dominant paradigm, sometimes clear vision requires an imaginative leap into reality. I guess it’s a good thing we have a word to designate the ache we feel for a better world.

* * *

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer
Kindle Locations 596-675

Origins of the Words Fairness and Fair

Where did this language of fairness come from? What is the origin of the word itself? To search for the semantic roots of fair and fairness is to make a surprising discovery. Among widely spoken languages in the modern world, cognates for fairness and fair appear to have been unique to English, Danish, Norwegian, and Frisian until the mid-twentieth century. 40 They remained so until after World War II, when other languages began to import these words as anglicisms. 41

The ancestry of fair and fairness also sets them apart in another way. Unlike most value terms in the Western world, they do not derive from Greek or Latin roots. Their etymology is unlike that of justice and equity, which have cognates in many modern Western languages. Justice derives from the Latin ius, which meant a conformity to law or divine command, “without reference to one’s own inclinations.” Equity is from the Latin aequitas and its adjective aequus, which meant level, even, uniform, and reasonable. 42

Fairness and fair have a different origin. They derive from the Gothic fagrs, which meant “pleasing to behold,” and in turn from an Indo-European root that meant “to be content.” 43 At an early date, these words migrated from Asia to middle Europe. There they disappeared in a maelstrom of many languages, but not before they migrated yet again to remote peninsulas and islands of northern and western Europe, where they persisted to our time. 44 In Saxon English, for example, the old Gothic faeger survived in the prose of the Venerable Bede as late as the year 888. 45 By the tenth century, it had become faire in English speech. 46

In these early examples, fagr, faeger, fair, and fairness had multiple meanings. In one very old sense, fair meant blond or beautiful or both—fair skin, fair hair. As early as 870 a Viking king was called Harald Harfagri in Old Norse, or Harold Fairhair in English. In another usage, it meant favorable, helpful, and good—fair wind, fair weather, fair tide. In yet a third it meant spotless, unblemished, pleasing, and agreeable: fair words, fair speech, fair manner. All of these meanings were common in Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon in the tenth and eleventh centuries. By 1450, it also meant right conduct in rivalries or competitions. Fair play, fair game, fair race, and fair chance appeared in English texts before 1490. 47

The more abstract noun fairness was also in common use. The great English lexicographer (and father of the Oxford English Dictionary) Sir James Murray turned up many examples, some so early that they were still in the old Gothic form—such as faegernyss in Saxon England circa 1000, before the Norman Conquest. It became fayreness and fairnesse as an ethical abstraction by the mid-fifteenth century, as “it is best that he trete him with farenes” in 1460. 48

As an ethical term, fairness described a process and a solution that could be accepted by most parties—fair price, fair judgment, fair footing, fair and square. Sometimes it also denoted a disposition to act fairly: fair-minded, fair-natured, fair-handed. All of these ethical meanings of fair and fairness were firmly established by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Fair play appears in Shakespeare (1595); fair and square in Francis Bacon (1604); fair dealing in Lord Camden (before 1623). 49

To study these early English uses of fairness and fair is to find a consistent core of meaning. Like most vernacular words, they were intended not for study but for practical use. In ethical applications, they described a way of resolving an issue that is contested in its very nature: a bargain or sale, a race or rivalry, a combat or conflict. Fundamentally, fairness meant a way of settling contests and conflicts without bias or favor to any side, and also without deception or dishonesty. In that sense fairness was fundamentally about not taking undue advantage of other people. As early as the fifteenth century it variously described a process, or a result, or both together, but always in forms that fair-minded people would be willing to accept as legitimate.

Fairness functioned as a mediating idea. It was a way of linking individuals to groups, while recognizing their individuality at a surprisingly early date. Always, fairness was an abstract idea of right conduct that could be applied in different ways, depending on the situation. For example, in some specific circumstances, fairness was used to mean that people should be treated in the same way. But in other circumstances, fairness meant that people should be treated in different ways, or special ways that are warranted by particular facts and conditions, such as special merit, special need, special warrant, or special desire. 50

Fairness was a constraint on power and strength, but it did not seek to level those qualities in a Procrustean way. 51 Its object was to regulate ethical relationships between people who possess power and strength in different degrees—a fundamental fact of our condition. A call for fairness was often an appeal of the weak to the conscience of the strong. It was the eternal cry of an English-speaking child to parental authority: “It’s not fair!” As any parent knows, this is not always a cry for equality.

Modern Applications of Fairness: Their Consistent Core of Customary Meaning

Vernacular ideas of fairness and fair have changed through time, and in ways that are as unexpected as their origin. In early ethical usage, these words referred mostly to things that men did to one another—a fair fight, fair blow, fair race, fair deal, fair trade. They also tended to operate within tribes of Britons and Scandinavians, where they applied to freemen in good standing. Women, slaves, and strangers from other tribes were often excluded from fair treatment, and they bitterly resented it.

The tribal uses of fair and fairness were full of historical irony. These ideas flourished on the far fringes of northwestern Europe among groups of proud, strong, violent, and predatory people who lived in hard environments, fought to the death for the means of life, and sometimes preyed even on their own kin. Ideas of fairness and fair play developed as a way of keeping some of these habitual troublemakers from slaughtering each other even to the extinction of the tribe. All that might be understood as the first stage in the history of fairness. 52

Something fundamental changed in a second stage, when the folk cultures of Britain and Scandinavia began to grow into an ethic that embraced others beyond the tribe—and people of every rank and condition. This expansive tendency had its roots in universal values such as the Christian idea of the Golden Rule. 53 That broader conception of fairness expanded again when it met the humanist ideas of the Renaissance, the universal spirit of the Enlightenment, the ecumenical spirit of the Evangelical Movement, and democratic revolutions in America and Europe. When that happened, a tribal idea gradually became more nearly universal in its application. 54 Quantitative evidence suggests an inflection at the end of the eighteenth century. The frequency of fairness in English usage suddenly began to surge circa 1800. The same pattern appears in the use of the expression natural justice. 55

Then came a third stage in the history of fairness, when customary ideas began to operate within complex modern societies. In the twentieth century, fairness acquired many technical meanings with specific applications. One example regulated relations between government and modern media (“the fairness doctrine”). In another, fairness became a professional standard for people who were charged with the management of other people’s assets (“fiduciary fairness”). One of the most interesting modern instances appeared among lawyers as a test of “balance or impartiality” in legal proceedings, or a “subjective standard by which a court is deemed to have followed due process,” which began to be called “fundamental fairness” in law schools. Yet another example was “fair negotiation,” which one professional negotiator defined as a set of rules for “bargaining with the Devil without losing your soul.” One of the most complex applications is emerging today as an ethic of “fairness in electronic commerce.” These and other modern applications of fairness appear in legal treatises, professional codes, and complex bodies of regulatory law. 56

Even as modern uses of fair and fairness have changed in all of those ways, they also preserved a consistent core of vernacular meaning that had appeared in Old English, Norse, and Scandinavian examples and is still evident today. To summarize, fair and fairness have long been substantive and procedural ideas of right conduct, designed to regulate relations among people who are in conflict or rivalry or opposition in particular ways. Fairness means not taking undue advantage of others. It is also about finding ways to settle differences through a mutual acceptance of rules and processes that are thought to be impartial and honest—honesty is fundamental. And it is also about living with results that are obtained in this way. As the ancient Indo-European root of fagrs implied, a quest for fairness is the pursuit of practical solutions with which opposing parties could “be content.” These always were, and still are, the fundamental components of fairness. 57

Notes:

40. For an excellent and very helpful essay on fair and fairness by a distinguished cultural and historical linguist, see Anna Wierzbicka, “Being FAIR: Another Key Anglo Value and Its Cultural Underpinnings,” in English: Meaning and Culture (New York and Oxford, 2006), 141–70. See also Bart Wilson, “Fair’s Fair,” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/print/2009/01/fairs-fair/112; Bart J. Wilson, “Contra Private Fairness,” May 2008, http://www.chapman.edu/images/userimges/jcunning/Page_11731/ContraPrivateFairness05–2008.pdf; James Surowiecki, “Is the Idea of Fairness Universal?” Jan. 26, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/jamessurowiecki/2009/01/is; and Mark Liberman, “No Word for Fair?” Jan. 28, 2009, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1080.

41. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “fair” and “fairness.” Cognates for the English fairness include fagr in Icelandic and Old Norse, retferdighet in modern Norwegian, and retfaerighed in modern Danish. See Geír Tòmasson Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Toronto, 2004), s.v. “fagr.” For Frisian, see Karl von Richthofen, Altfriesisches Wörterbuch (Gottingen, 1840); idem, Friesische Rechtsquellen (Berlin, 1840). On this point I agree and disagree with Anna Wierzbicka. She believes that fair and unfair “have no equivalents in other European languages (let alone non-European ones) and are thoroughly untranslatable” (“Being FAIR,” 141). This is broadly true, but with the exception of Danish, Norwegian, Frisian, and Icelandic. Also I’d suggest that the words can be translated into other languages, but without a single exactly equivalent word. I believe that people of all languages are capable of understanding the meaning of fair and fairness, even if they have no single word for it.

42. OED, s.v. “justice,” “equity.”

43. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, ed. David B. Guralnik (New York and Cleveland, 1970), s.v. “fair”; OED, s.v. “fair.”

44. Ancient cognates for fair included fagar in Old English and fagr in Old Norse.

45. W. J. Sedgefield, Selections from the Old English Bede, with Text and Vocabulary, on an Early West Saxon Basis, and a Skeleton Outline of Old English Accidence (Manchester, London, and Bombay, 1917), 77; and in the attached vocabulary list, s.v. the noun “faeger” and the adverbial form “faegere.” Also Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Tollen, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Based on Manuscript Collections (Oxford, 1882, 1898), s.v. “faeger,” ff.

46. Not to be confused with this word is another noun fair, for a show or market or carnival, from the Latin feria, feriae, feriarum, festival or holiday—an entirely different word, with another derivation and meaning.

47. Liberman, “No Word for Fair?”

48. OED, s.v. “fairness,” 1.a, b, c.

49. For fair and fairness in Shakespeare, see King John V.i.67. For fair and square in Francis Bacon in 1604 and Oliver Cromwell in 1649, see OED, s.v. “fair and square.”

50. Herein lies one of the most difficult issues about fairness. How can we distinguish between ordinary circumstances where fairness means that all people should be treated alike, and extraordinary circumstances where fairness means different treatment? This problem often recurs in cases over affirmative action in the United States. No court has been able to frame a satisfactory general rule, in part because of ideological differences on the bench.

51. Procrustes was a memorable character in Greek mythology, a son of Poseidon called Polypaemon or Damastes, and nicknamed Procrustes, “the Stretcher.” He was a bandit chief in rural Attica who invited unwary travelers to sleep in an iron bed. If they were longer than the bed, Procrustes cut off their heads or feet to make them fit; if too short he racked them instead. Procrustes himself was dealt with by his noble stepbrother Theseus, who racked him on his own bed and removed his head according to some accounts. In classical thought, and modern conservatism, the iron bed of Procrustes became a vivid image of rigid equality. The story was told by Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library 4.59; Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.38.5; and Plutarch, Lives, Theseus 2.

52. Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland (London, 2001), 171–84; the best way to study the origin of fairness in a brutal world is in the Norse sagas themselves, especially Njal’s Saga, trans. and ed. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (London, 1960, 1980), 21–22, 40, 108–11, 137–39, 144–45, 153, 163, 241, 248–55; Egil’s Saga, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (London, 1976, 1980), 136–39; Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Icelandic Stories, trans. and ed. Hermann Palsson (London, 1971, 1980), 42–60.

53. Matthew 25:40; John 4:19–21; Luke 10:27.

54. The vernacular history of humanity, expanding in the world, is a central theme in David Hackett Fischer, Champlain’s Dream (New York and Toronto, 2008); as the expansion of vernacular ideas of liberty and freedom is central to Albion’s Seed (New York and Oxford, 1989) and Liberty and Freedom (New York and Oxford, 2005); and the present inquiry is about the expansion of vernacular ideas of fairness in the world. One purpose of all these projects is to study the history of ideas in a new key. Another purpose is to move toward a reunion of history and moral philosophy, while history also becomes more empirical and more logical in its epistemic frame.

55. For data on frequency, see Google Labs, Books Ngram Viewer, http://ngrams.googlelabs.com, s.v. “fairness” and “natural justice.” Similar patterns and inflection-points appear for the corpus of “English,” “British English,” and “American English,” in the full span 1500–2000, smoothing of 3. Here again on the history of fairness, I agree and disagree with Wierzbicka (“Being FAIR,” 141–67). The ethical meanings of fairness first appeared earlier than she believes to be the case. But I agree on the very important point that ethical use of fairness greatly expanded circa 1800.

56. Fred W. Friendly, The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment (New York, 1976) is the classic work on the fairness doctrine. Quotations in this paragraph are from Carrie Menkow-Meadow and Michael Wheeler, eds., What’s Fair: Ethics for Negotiators (Cambridge, 2004), 57; Philip J. Clements and Philip W. Wisler, The Standard and Poor’s Guide to Fairness Opinions: A User’s Guide for Fiduciaries (New York, 2005); Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law (Cleveland, 1996), s.v. “fundamental fairness”; Approaching a Formal Definition of Fairness in Electronic Commerce: Proceedings of the 18th IEEE Symposium on Reliable Distributed Systems (Washington, 1999), 354. Other technical uses of fairness can be found in projects directed by Arien Mack, editor of Social Research, director of the Social Research Conference series, and sponsor of many Fairness Conferences and also of a Web site called Fairness.com.

57. An excellent discussion of fairness, the best I have found in print, is George Klosko, The Principle of Fairness and Political Obligation (Savage, MD, 1992; rev. ed., 2004). It is similarto this formulation on many points, but different on others.

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

I was reading more of Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz. The latter part of the book is getting more to what personally interests me. He has a detailed discussion about equality, equity, and fairness. This leads him into the issues of private property and the commons.

I’m learning much from this book. It focuses on these ideas, both as discussed by early thinkers and how they have developed over time. One thing I learned was how central the idea of equality was to so many early thinkers. Even before the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes and other more religious thinkers were arguing about equality, what it means and where it originated (and, of course, what became of that original state). Hobbes saw equality in a state of nature with Death as the great equalizer. Others saw it as coming from God.

John Locke made a different argument than Hobbes. He relied on a more religious argument. Schwartz goes into great detail about Lockean rights. He makes it clear that Locke left many gaping holes in his logic. He goes even further in seeing all rights talk as being problematic. It poses questions it can’t answer and makes assumptions it can’t justify. Instead of focusing narrowly on rights,  especially natural rights, some of the early thinking on equality might give us a stronger foundation for understanding the values that will better serve us, in our aspirations for a just and moral society. Equality was always an important concern in Western thought. It’s just that we Americans have come to overlook its importance and forget the role it once played.

I was also thinking more about the cultural angle not covered by Schwartz. Locke grappled with both the issues of rights and equality. I was wondering about his background. Maybe I should read a good biography of him one of these days. The detail of his life that has caught my attention is his having spent time in Netherlands, in order to escape repression back in England. Some have conjectured that he might have been influenced by Spinoza or else by the same atmosphere that helped to shape Spinoza’s thought.

That is an interesting conjecture because of the important role Netherlands played in British history. It was a relatively short distance across the channel from East Anglia. The Puritans also had left England to escape repression, some going to Netherlands. When they returned, many settled in East Anglia. The Puritans then carried a particular tradition of egalitarianism to America. This was the foundation of the regional culture of New England.

Following different pathways of influence, other regional cultures developed quite differently.

“The persistence of regional cultures in America is more than merely a matter of antiquarian interest. Regional diversity has created a dynamic tension within a single republican system. It has also fostered at least four different ideas of liberty within a common cultural frame.

“These four libertarian traditions were not forms of classical republicanism or European liberalism—even as those alien ideologies were often borrowed as rationales, American ideas of freedom developed from indigenous folkways which were deeply rooted in the inherited culture of the English-speaking world.

“Considered in ethical terms, each of these four freedom ways began as a great and noble impulse, but all at first were limited in expression and defective in their operation. The Puritan idea of ordered freedom was no sooner brought to Massachusetts than it became an instrument of savage persecution. The cavalier conception of hegemonic freedom, when carried to Virginia, permitted and even required the growth of race slavery for its support. The Quaker vision of reciprocal freedom was a sectarian impulse which could be sustained only by withdrawal from the world. The backcountry belief in natural freedom sometimes dissolved into cultural anarchy.

“But each of these four libertarian traditions proved capable of continuing growth. New England’s Puritan faith in ordered freedom grew far beyond its original limits to become, in Perry Miller’s words, “a constellation of ideas basic to any comprehension of the American mind.” Virginia’s cavalier conceit of hegemonic freedom transcended its association with inequalities of rank and race and gender to become an ethical idea that is relevant to all. Pennsylvania’s Quaker inspiration of reciprocal freedom developed from a fragile sectarian vision into a libertarian creed remarkable for toughness of mind and tenacity of purpose. Border and backcountry notions of natural freedom evolved from a folk tradition into an elaborate ideology.

“Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. The most important fact about American liberty is that it has never been a single idea, but a set of different and even contrary traditions in creative tension with one another. This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. It has also become the most powerful determinant of a voluntary society in the United States. In time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be that nation’s most enduring legacy to the world.”

Fischer, David Hackett (1989-10-19). Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) (Kindle Locations 14541-14561). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

See also:

Liberty and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

Fairness and Freedom
by David Hackett Fischer

American Nations
by Colin Woodard

Revolution of the Mind
by Jonathan Israel

Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness

I’ve been continuing my reading on culture, most specifically David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard among many others. One of the other authors is James Loewen whose work is mentioned by Fischer. I’ve also been thinking about Francis Fukuyama’s book on cultures of trust.

What has caught my interest lately is the history of certain words/concepts: liberty, freedom, and fairness.

Colin Woodard mentions the basic distinction between freedom and liberty in American Nations, but David Hackett Fischer discusses all of this more fully in several of his books. In Albion’s Seed, four varieties of freedom/liberty are discussed in terms of the four cultural strains in the American colonies. He goes in more detail about all of this in Liberty and Freedom and Fairness and Freedom.

Etymology is one of the most insightful ways of analyzing cultural values.

The distinction between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ as words is their origins in Northern and Southern Europe respectively. An important difference in early Europe is that most people were born free in Northern Europe whereas in the areas ruled by the Roman Empire most people were born enslaved and/or without self-rule, a difference that resonates with the separate traditions of common law in Northern Europe and civil law in Southern Europe. These origins play out in the meanings of the words.

Freedom (etymologically related to friendship) implies social connection in terms of community and kinship. A free person is a member of a free people. Freedom goes hand in hand with rights, another word that has origins in Northern Europe. Rights are what a person has who is born into a free society.

Liberty (along with similar words in the Hellenistic world) implies separation and independence. Liberty is about a hierarchy of privileges where there are no universal, inborn rights. Privileges are bestowed upon an individual by a government or other institutions of authority. Having the privilege of liberty is simply the negation of being a slave (i.e., the state of existence prior to being given privileges and following having privileges taken away).

In the earliest sense, a person is only free to the degree he is part of a free society. Freedom isn’t possessed by an individual; rather, it is participated in. Liberty, however, doesn’t require a free society. The Stoics went so far as to see liberty as a state of mind that even a slave could have. So, one can have liberty without freedom. Having based their society on the slave-holding republics of the ancient Mediterranean, privileged aristocrats in the American South correctly saw no conflict or hypocrisy in upholding the value of liberty while enslaving others.

Some mistakenly see the fundamental distinction as between positive and negative freedom. The negative means freedom from and the positive freedom toward. It does seem that negative freedom fits liberty, but positive freedom doesn’t fit the original meaning of freedom. To be a free person among a free people, isn’t so much freedom toward as it is freedom with. A lone person in the wilderness has perfect liberty, although not freedom for social values don’t mean much without a social context. This social factor is almost entirely ignored or else forgotten by mainstream American society, especially on the right (E.J. Dionne discusses this well in Our Divided Political Heart).

Fairness, especially from an American perspective, complicates matters. It originally just meant something being pleasing or good and also referred to how free people should treat one another in a free society. It didn’t mean equality or justice and it’s not so much about laws or rules. Fairness is more subjective or rather more intersubjective and more relative or rather more about interrelationships. To be fair necessitates characteristics such as honesty and authenticity along with requiring an attitude of respect and good intentions, understanding and sympathy. Not just about results, but also process.

The Scandinavians combine the values of freedom and fairness. That is a powerful combination as is attested by the examples of Scandinavian countries. I’d suspect that there is a particularly close relationship between cultures of fairness and cultures of trust. I’d also suspect a resonance with the correlation between economic equality and social health. Fairness seems to magnify the social factor of a free society.

A couple of statements about etymology surprised me.

Apparently, only Western languages have a native origin for single words directly defined according to freedom/liberty and only certain Northern European languages have a native origin for single words directly defined according to fairness. Many languages have since adopted these or similar words, either by borrowing or invention.

The English language is unique in its history. It is one of the earliest languages to form around all of these concepts. Celtic language was related to the languages of Northern Europe and they shared the concept of freedom. Germans and Scandinavians, having settled in the British isles, helped to form the English language and further strengthened the native values of freedom (along with the common law tradition) and introduced the linguistic concept of fairness. The Normans thereafter conquered England and placed an overlay of Latin words on the English language (along with establishing civil law).

In the English-speaking world, these linguistic concepts have become intertwined and overlapping. This is particularly true between freedom and liberty that are often used as synonyms, but the sense of their separateness was still understood during the revolutionary era when the two words would sometimes be combined as if to cover all bases. Even fairness and freedom are regularly paired signifying their vernacular resonance.

David Hackett Fischer looked at the use of these words in published writings.

The words liberty and freedom were increasingly used during the colonial era and their use reached a peak around the time of the founding of the United States. This left a permanent imprint on American culture that has lasted long after the use of those words decreased in Britain. Following the revolutionary era, the word fairness increased in Britain. This increase wasn’t seen as strongly in America, but New Zealand was strongly influenced as it experienced high rates of British immigration in the latter 19th century. This is how the founding effect had a different impact on two similar English-speaking free societies.

America is complicated beyond this revolutionary era founding effect. Each of the colonies that formed the regions also had their own founding cultures. The Norman-influenced Cavaliers spread the value of liberty throughout the South as there was a massive exodus from Virginia and into Appalachia and the Deep South. The Puritans, Quakers and Dutch brought a more German culture to the North. This was magnified by the several large waves of Germans that settled in the Quaker Midlands and there moved Westward. Also, Scandinavians combined their numbers with the Germans in the Upper Midwest where communitarianism, social democracy and socialism took hold.

New Zealand is a smaller country with a less diverse history of immigration. They didn’t have colonies founded by the likes of Cavaliers and Puritans, and so they didn’t have the schism that has plagued America. They also didn’t have many border English or Scots-Irish immigrants. I don’t know that they even had many Highland Scots or Irish. From what I understand, they had a more general mix of English immigrants who were of the middling sort. On top of that, they didn’t receive boatloads of criminals as did Australia and America nor did they receive boatloads of slaves along with the slave-holding aristocrats. The lack of ethnic and class diversity may have helped the value of fairness to take hold.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t underestimate the influence of fairness on American culture and politics, even though it hasn’t been embraced across all populations. New Zealand doesn’t have the German and Scandinavian population like the US. Germans are the single largest ethnicity in the US and one of the most widely spread throughout the country. Scandinavians may be smaller in number and more regionally isolated, but their influence is greater because they settled in areas with culturally sympathetic Germans.

The early colonial and revolutionary strains of grassroots democracy had been taken up by these Northern European immigrants and their descendents. Where they were concentrated in the Midwest, radical politics of populist reform took hold and from there permanently altered national politics. They were very talented with organizing movements and forming institutions. The Midwest was a stronghold of Populism, was the beginning point for much of Progressivism, and was a model of municipal socialism that set the national standard for good governance (it probably wasn’t accidental that the popular t.v. show Happy Days was set in socialist-run Milwaukee).

It is interesting to note that the word fairness has become more often used across the entire English-speaking world, including America. The German and Scandinavian waves of immigration had been particularly large in America during the 19th and 20th centuries which helped to emphasize the component of their cultures within Anglo-American culture (at a time when other ethnic immigrants such as from southern Europe were prohibited).

The World Wars caused many Germans to seek refuge in America, especially scientists, intellectuals and artists. Scandinavians and Germans have also been major players in globalized capitalism as a disproportionate number of international corporations originate from Northern Europe. Along with Germany’s influence on America, the influence also flowed back the other direction when the US helped to rebuild the German economy and industry after WWII.

I suspect the spread of the English language is related to the spread of democratic beliefs, ideals and practices around the globe… even if the putting into practice part is often severely imperfect. Also spreading to other societies would be the failures and hypocrisy, the rhetoric and doublespeak that underlies or is consequent to such linguistic concepts.

David Hackett Fischer discusses both the positives and the negatives.

One particular negative was most personally relevant. A problem of freedom involves the opposite of being a part of a free people. Free societies/communities have often defined themselves by who  is excluded. He references James Loewen’s work on sundown towns in this regard.

I was generally aware that sundown towns existed, although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them called that. They are basically towns where blacks weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) welcome after dark, so unwelcome that their lives could be in danger (such as being arrested, beaten, or lynched). I was even aware that towns unfriendly to non-whites have existed all over the United States. Racism is pervasive throughout American society. Still, I was surprised by how pervasive these sundown towns supposedly were, especially in the far North and far West.

There was an era following the Civil War where an anti-racist idealism prevailed. It took hold most strongly in the Republican majority areas outside the South. Blacks were very much welcomed into towns across the country and blacks took up the new opportunities available to them. What I never knew before was that blacks had settled in so many small towns and rural areas outside of the South. Like Loewen before he did the research, I just assumed most areas always were lacking in minorities.

For example, a nearby town is West Branch in Cedar County. My brother and his family live in West Branch, and he has noted the old boys network that keeps that town from changing, despite all the other small towns nearby experiencing lots of change. A longtime friend of mine grew up there for much of her early life and she recalls the racism that was common there.

Loewen briefly discusses Cedar County in his discussion of presidential hometowns (as Hoover lived in West Branch as a child). West Branch did and does have a large Quaker presence and the Quakers sought to help blacks after the Civil War. According to the census data, there were 37 black residents of Cedar County in 1890, but only 2 in 1930.

This appearance and disappearance of blacks happened all over around this time. During the 20th century, blacks increasingly became concentrated into big cities. Loewen was unable to find any legal documents, newspaper accounts or oral history about what caused the  blacks to leave Cedar County, but he did find plenty of evidence to explain what happened in other places. In some cases, white mobs forced entire black communities to vacate a town, a county or larger area (Oregon was a sundown state in that there were anti-black laws enforced to keep any new blacks from becoming residents). Whether through official decree or unofficial policy, many of these places remained all white for most or all of the 20th century, some still remaining all white to this day.

The Deep South didn’t have this problem as its culture was never based on the ideal of being a free society. Instead, the Deep South aristocracy idealized liberty which doesn’t require equal rights for all citizens. Sundown towns were rare in the Deep South because their entire economy and lifestyle was dependent on cheap black labor. So, there was a vested interest in keeping their black populations close at hand. It’s for this reason that one finds the South to be well integrated in the basic sense of living in close proximity, even if blacks and whites typically go to separate churches and schools.

This difference among the regions can even be seen in the settlement and residential patterns among whites.

I’ve always had this sense that there is more diversity even among whites in the North, but this diversity goes hand in hand with the same kind of segregation seen with blacks. In the North, a single ethnicity (Irish, Germans, Czechs, etc) would tend to all live together in a single neighborhood, town or county. A defining factor among Scots-Irish in the South is how early on they were more open to intermarrying with those of other ethnicities, as the Scots-Irish based their social organization more on kinship than on community (and if you married into a Scots-Irish family you were kin). This also has to do with the fact that much of the white immigration in the North (and on the West Coast) happened in the 20th century such as with the influx of Germans during the era of the world wars whereas the influx of Scots-Irish in the South happened much earlier.

With my German ancestry, I’ve given this much thought.

Germans were among the most idealist of immigrants, including a streak of anti-racism, which is why the Germans felt at home in the Quaker Midlands. For centuries, Germans came to America with very clear notions of the freedom they sought. This sense of freedom had it’s roots in the linguistic history involving the sense of being a free people. Being free was tied up with their sense of nationality. Germans congregated together and enforced their culture and language onto the communities they were a majority in, that is until the WASP oppressiveness of the Cold War Era.

There is a clear resonance to the pattern in northern Europe and northern United States. Both areas were distant from the populations of those of African and Hispanic ancestry. Both areas have been centers of industrialization and globalization which are, as Fukuyama points out, related to cultures of trust.

I sense that cultures of trust are key for understanding much of this.

Some people have noted that societies with strong cultures of trust often are ethnically homogenous. At least in Western countries, this appears to be based on or influenced by the national sense of being a free people (according to Fischer, a nation isn’t the same thing as a country, but instead simply means a shared culture). A free people aren’t just free. They are united in a collective sense of belonging to a shared free society. This requires immense trust (along with social capital in general) and in turn creates the groundwork for the continuance of trust.

A culture of trust seems even more important for the Scandinavian countries that reinforce their sense of freedom with a demand for fairness. Scandinavian countries are probably even more ethnically and culturally homogenous than Germany for they are, along with being far away from the Mediterranean, further away from Eastern Europe. This might be why Scandinavian countries are so small. It might be part of what makes them successful as cultures of trust.

This presents a dilemma for the United States. The US is neither small nor ethnically homogenous. The US at an earlier time could have chosen to have remained smaller and more ethnicially homogenous, but the Westward expansion and concommitant acquisition of former territories of France, Spain and Mexico irredeemably ended the dream of a permanent WASP supremacy. Nonetheless, Americans have managed to create a reasonable level of social capital, enough so that a free society can function to a minimal degree.

Maybe the trick isn’t lack of diversity in and of itself. Sundown towns tend to lack ethnic diversity, but that also makes them insular and so less well assimilated to the larger American culture. Cultures of trust don’t seem to fit well into insular communities. Sundown towns are often so insular as to be antagonistic to anything new and different. It reminds one of how the Nazis took over Germany, and Loewen does point out that Germany experienced a similar thing with towns putting up signs forbidding Jews.

What makes the difference between a society becoming an insular society and a society becoming a culture of trust? Which direction is the US moving toward? It makes me wonder about what freedom means or could mean. Our concepts of freedom/liberty arose prior to democracy and the entire Enlightenment Age.

Cultures most often change slowly and not easily. I have doubts about the ability of cultures to be changed from within. When forced by external forces, though, cultures can sometimes change quickly and dramatically. So, what kind of external forces could put pressure on American culture to expand it’s ideals of freedom and liberty? Or even what could make more Americans see the failures and problems of their own ideals?

http://www.npr.org/2012/07/04/156258435/founding-fathers-defined-freedom-differently

http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/183822-1

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/07/opinion/07fischer.html?_r=0

http://cchadley.free.fr/3rdYr/3rdYrCiv/FischerFreedomLiberty.html

http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/politics/difference-between-liberty-and-freedom/

http://www.lewrockwell.com/stromberg/stromberg14.html

http://kiwiscots.blogspot.com/2012/03/fairness-and-freedom-nz-and-us.html

http://artsfuse.org/56492/fuse-book-review-fairness-and-freedom/

http://paulwindsor.blogspot.com/2013/01/fairness-and-freedom.html

http://readersupportednews.org/pm-section/256-justice/10868-the-worlds-wealthiest-failed-state-fairness-and-freedom-in-contemporary-america

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

What is Fair?
DrAnthonysBlog

“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.