In All Fairness, Part One (Identifying Previously Held Assumptions)

What does it mean, fairness? What is fair? Is nature fair, is society fair, how can we go about being fair? Are there levels of fairness and should there be?

It seemed so clear to me when I was a child: fairness is when I got the good things I saw other people get. Fairness was ice cream and toys. Fairness was goodness. Group punishment was not fair, head lice was not fair, and the chickenpox was not fair – because they were not good, I did not want them. I wonder how this early idea of fairness as goodness may linger in my thoughts. I will try and shed my prejudice: fairness may not necessarily be goodness. Bad things may be fair things.

I am also inclined to think of fairness as something rank-able – possibly even quantifiable. “The game is fair only half of the time”, “this game is more fair than that game”, or “make this adjustment to your rules and they will become more fair”. These are certainly ways that are very natural for me to talk about fairness. I should like to try and suspend this way of thinking. A game that can be made more fair may simply be NOT fair. “Unless you adjust your rules they will not be fair”, or “a game that is fair half of the time is not a fair game”. These seem reasonable to me as well, although I tend not to think about fairness as absolute in my everyday life. I’d like to start with the possibility that it might be.

Also, it seems to me that fairness often requires interference. That nature is not fair – although it may be unbiased. It kills some children, it lets others grow up with severe handicaps, or allows others with no troubles at all to grow until a very old age – that does not seem fair. Not only because it does not seem good, but because it seems random. It does not pick the strongest-willed mother to rob of her child – it picks any mother at all – it may pick the weakest mother. Randomness does not necessarily seem fair to me. In some cases it seems that fairness is separate from chance.  I am, however, going to entertain that randomness MAY be fair. I will not dismiss the possibility just because it does not seem intuitive to me.

I occasionally have trouble with the idea that awareness is required for fairness. I don’t intrinsically feel that it is unfair to withhold something from me that I do not desire. This can include good things that I may simply be unaware of. If I don’t know they exist, if I don’t know they can be had, it seems to me that I can’t integrate them into my own idea of fairness. But, I think this is likely the most problematic idea of them all: for it would seem to suggest that enhancing ignorance can enhance fairness – and that seems to pose a real difficulty. At any rate, I am going to consciously consider that fairness may have nothing to do with what I know or can conceive of – it may, after all, not be fair of my peers to keep me in ignorance.

Lastly, it seems much too commonplace to imagine fairness as a common starting ground. If we start out on an equal footing, well that seems fair. I’m not going to assume that is necessarily true. I can imagine a scenario where starting fair does not mean things stay fair – it might mean nothing is really fair but the start itself.

Those are some conceptions of fairness that come easily for me – and because of this I am going to be very cautious with them and make a real effrot to entertain alternatives. This investigation of fariness will be continued in a second part.

2 Responses

  1. Martin says:

    . Fairness is a mythical concept. Perhaps fairytale concept would be a better choice
    Perhaps it’s like the mathematical situation of 1/x approaching 0 but not ever able to get there. Fairness might be placed right along side of infinity for our ability to really grasp what it might be. Most people could care less about infinity except for the hereafter. But fairness is something we all think we can handle here and now. We might as well be playing with pixie dust.

  2. Martin:

    I wonder if you might have just demolished ‘justice’. You’ve also, it seems to me, destroyed most religions.

    Or, maybe you have not done either – you have said fairness is imaginary, but in a way that is not trivial. A necessary ideal to make things work out as we’d like. Be too quick to take it away, like the ideal infinity of which you spoke, and we might have a very hard time understanding a great number of things.

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