Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On "Fairness"

You don’t have to be very old to discover that things are “not fair.” It’s probably the first thing you learn on the school playground. It may have to do with hitting someone when they are down, two kids picking on one, or something like that, but it is clearly recognizable as not fair. There is obviously some idea of “fairness.” Chris Hayes has a short piece on MSNBC in which he says his parents taught him that things “ought to be fair,” even if they aren’t. Where does this idea of fairness come from? I assume it is a kind of human idea as there would seem to be no idea of fairness in nature. That is, where is the fairness when a newborn fawn is run down by a pack of wolves or a salmon run is destroyed by a dam or an elephant is killed by a poacher?

From a human point of view it does seem that things are unfair, but it is not clear to me what that means. For example, is it fair that some people have billions of dollars while others have virtually none? Is that fair? Leave aside for the moment that in our contemporary culture the idea of fairness seems not to exist at all and think about a more abstract culture. Would it be fair if everyone in any given culture had precisely the same amount of wealth? I think not, it seems clear that some individuals work harder, are smarter and more creative than others, and would inevitably be more successful. That would seem to be fair. But in our culture it is possible to be obscenely wealthy without any effort at all. All you need to do to be rich is to inherit money, win it, or otherwise acquire and possess it, which automatically guarantees you to become even more wealthy. When money itself breeds and produces more money the idea of fairness becomes irrelevant. This seems to me to be obviously not fair.

Leaving aside the question of wealth for the moment, is it fair that some people die young and others live into a ripe old age? This seems to me obviously unfair. Why should my wonderful, talented, and super energetic wife have to die at 60 while I continue on into my 80’?. Why should some individuals die in childhood without a chance to live full and rewarding lives, why should others be stricken with diseases and die painfully while others do not? I do not know where you would find a better example of unfairness. It appears there is no unfairness in nature, it is apparently irrelevant. Would it not be more fair if everyone was scheduled to die at the same age, say 75 or 80, maybe even 90? Everyone born would have the same chance to live their lives as best they could, a fair chance for all. If, during the course of their lives, some were more successful than others (barring inheritance and criminal enterprise) would that not be fair?

On the other hand, if everything was fair, if everyone lived the same amount of time and knew when they would die, would life be worth living? If everyone had the same amount of money, irrespective of their personal incentive, would not life be boring and unrewarding? It seems to me that unfairness is built into life, is in fact a necessary condition of life, is, in a sense, what makes life worth living. If everything was completely fair we would live like robots or ants, existing merely to perform and experience only that for which we were pre-ordained and equipped for, living lives of quiet non-expectations, automatons on the way to nowhere.

I guess we need to accept the unfairness of our lives. But here again, when perplexed, I always turn to my mother’s advice, “do everything in moderation.” That’s exactly what we need, moderation in unfairness. Unhappily, that’s not what we have at the moment.

Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.” 

 Epicurus

1 comment:

Greg Flansaas said...

thank you