From the school yard to the workplace, there's no charge more damning than "You're being unfair!" Born out of democracy and raised in open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics--Lady Justice--wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale.
In this election season, politicians will be falling over themselves to assert their "fairness cred." And each side of the partisan debate will be using the word differently -conservatives will mean "meritocratic rewards" when they speak of fairness, and liberals will mean "equality."
But of course life isn't fair, no matter what your political lean, and we might be expecting too much from reality. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity.
Since social life isn't really fair, why go on pretending it is? Wouldn't we be better off with an ethics that acknowledges the stubborn facts of inequity, bias, and partiality? I think it would be wiser if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness--indeed, if we favored favoritism.
Moreover, the cosmos itself doesn't seem much interested in fairness. Nature, after all, is "red in tooth and claw" as Tennyson suggested and Darwin confirmed. Does the predator-prey rulebook seem fair? Wildebeest get to eat grass, for example, but practically everything else on the Serengeti (e.g., hyena, lion, cheetah, crocodile, leopard) get to eat them.
Not only is biology a grudging miser when it comes to adaptive powers (e.g., I'm slow, can't fly, and lack claws and fangs), but it also created a highly unfair sexual division of labor. My son was born, after his mother pushed heroically for 24 hours, while I (and most other men) went to the nearby ice machine to fetch her ice chips to chew on. By what stretch of the imagination does that look fair?
So, in hopes that we become more clear-eyed about reality, here are 9 ways that life is undeniably unfair (and notice that a couple of them are actually quite positive).
Stephen T. Asma is the author of Against Fairness [University of Chicago Press, $22.50].
You rarely (almost never) marry the love of your life. Someone else gets the girl (or guy) of your dreams. We never seem to get what we deserve, and we rarely deserve what we get. On top of this unfair truth comes the almost mean-spirited design of romance that makes the most dangerous and exciting qualities for sexual attraction the exact worst qualities for long-term parenting partnerships.
Being beautiful (or being "hot") tilts everything in your favor, and you didn't earn that kind of advantage (unless, of course, you bought your face from a plastic surgeon). Everyone knows that the genetic lottery is unfair, and everyone officially espouses the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover ethic, but let's get real. Looking for parity in the aesthetic realm is a pipe-dream.
Here's a positive one -a great one, in fact. Your best friend doesn't treat you "fairly," and thank God. She doesn't see you as equal with others, but above them. And she isn't devoted to you because you are excellent -because you merit such special treatment, with your genius, or talent, or greatness. No, she goes to the wall for you even when you're wrong, or dumb, or unqualified.
No matter how smart you are, there are so many people smarter than you. I can't seem to do the Rubik's cube no matter how much time you give me, but I just watched a kid on YouTube do it in 9 seconds. My only consolation for the daily humiliation of being outclassed in brain-power, is that uber-smartness can be more of a curse than a blessing. Of course, that's yet another unfair fact of life: really stupid people seem to acquire wealth and power with relative ease because they don't have the impediment of conscience or second-guessing reflection.
The more ethical or moral you are, the more likely you are to shoot yourself in the foot when it comes to "closing" on the one-night-stand. Annoying things like "consideration for others," "kindness" and "respect" derail your prospects for Dionysian orgies. This hardly seems fair. In fact, it's so transcendently disappointing that we've invented the ultimate party -the afterlife --just to redress the unfairness.
Television makes people famous when they have no skills, talent, or manners. The rise of reality television has only rendered a long-standing injustice more obvious. In previous eras, you had to be excellent at something in order to merit the wealth, honor and accolades of celebrity. Don't get me wrong, many of today's athletes and musicians are indeed highly accomplished, but a whole other species of celebrity has attained god-like status simply because the camera has been turned on them. As a college professor, I ask my students if they know who Snooky is. Everyone knows. Then, I ask them to name an important living scientist. What follows is long uncomfortable silence, and then one kid will tentatively offer, "Well, there's that one guy in the wheelchair, right?"
Many people think this is negative because they confuse nepotism with corruption. But I think nepotism is positive. Favoritism is to corruption what chocolate is to obesity. The former can cause the latter, but in moderation it need not. Yes, it seems unfair when someone hires their friend or relative over a stranger, but haven't we all benefited tremendously from this same kind of preferential treatment? We try desperately to eliminate nepotism in our official culture, but we should be careful what we wish for.
Loud and overconfident people win out over shy people, even when shy people are right. In a fair and reasonable world, truth would be compelling in some obvious way. It's not. Usually the humble and correct person is passed over for the charismatic, brash dolt. Political debates are only the most obvious example, wherein excellent policy suggestions go ignored when louder and more authoritative claims ride roughshod over them. And while we're on the subject, is it really fair that taller people seem more convincing than their shorter rivals?
Here's a very positive case of unfairness. You can be a complete schmuck, but your family is loyal to you. Love trumps fairness every time. It says: I don't care if other people are more deserving than you, you're mine and that's why I privilege you and give you more than anyone else. My "favorites" (in this case, family) are not the best or most accomplished at this or that. They are not virtuoso human beings. It's my sheer affection for them, and my history with them, that raises their status above other people. In this crucial case, both the liberal idea of fairness as "equality" and the conservative idea of fairness as "merit" are thrown out the window.