November 13, 2011

What is fair?

Many of us have said, or heard, that something is “not fair” at one time or another.  In childhood, it could have taken the form of telling our mother this when she wanted us to go to bed.  When we were older, it could have been uttered when we realized that we had a flat tire while headed to an important meeting.  Or, we could have agreed with a close friend that their supervisor had not treated them fair in passing them over for promotion.  Regardless of when we heard, or spoke it, we were probably certain about what we believed to be true.  Fair is deeply personal to most of us.

What is fair?  Is it simply treating everyone the same?  Or, is it defined by faith, understood through philosophy, or learned by comparing it to past experience, or by watching it on a screen?  Economists will tell you that fair is but one of several means to justify the allocation of, always finite, resources.  HR professionals might say it involves applying policies without regard to anything but employee performance and/or perhaps longevity.  When I was little, I thought fair was what Stan Lee wrote about and his characters, superheroes of course, staunchly defended every month.  Growing up in the United States students are taught in school that the country was founded, at least in part, because the colonists felt they were not taxed in a fair way.  Fair is many things.

Is what I consider fair about something the same as what you believe?  Do your friends, family, or even frenemies, if you have any, use the same standards to measure what they believe to be fair as you do?  Is fair the same in other regions or foreign countries?  If intelligent life exists outside of the earth, what is fair to them?  If you stop and think about it, really think about it, fair is complicated!

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?

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?


  1. All of us, kids and adults, tend to say “it’s not fair” when something happens we don’t like, so discounting that first of all and focusing only on the times we really feel something is not “fair”: I think fairness is equality of opportunity regardless of personality or circumstance. We keenly feel something is not fair when we sense that a decision has been taken which turned on our (or someone else’s) personality or circumstances, where we had no opportunity to affect the outcome. We feel this as a personal slight and we feel the impact on our allocation of resources.

    Comment by Jackie K — November 13, 2011 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  2. We claim that things are unfair when it does not reflect our personal preferences. However, fairness is the concept of things being equal for everyone, which I am not convinced can be possible in this world.

    Comment by Noel — November 13, 2011 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

  3. I have a spiritual reflection shown below but I also recall that our middle son, now age 23, called things unfair a lot as a child. If things didn’t go his way they must be unfair. Some of us have a keener sense of fairness than others.

    Fairness is about choices. For something to be fair the parties (and any uninvolved observer) should be able to see a situation and said it was handled equitably and that all involved had their interests satisfied. This is what we ask judges and the legal system to do; look how simple that all is!

    I was taught about fairness as a child when we had to share. If two of us wanted to share something then one brother divided it and the other one got first choice…. practical fairness was taught. The ethical lessons came later when we were a little more mature.

    Here’s my spiritual poem which I thought had some relevance -> life doesn’t make sense, or be fair, but we have to live it anyway.

    Thoughts upon reading the introduction to the Book of Job

    Life doesn’t have to make sense.
    We miss some things if we are busy looking for that which makes sense.
    The Creator didn’t say to you or me, “Here, come and be born and it will make sense.” The Creator said, in many ways, “Come and be born and enjoy the beauty of this world; be human and treat all other humans with kindness. Respect My creation and share it.”
    Where in that invitation does the Creator say it has to make sense in order for you or me to fulfill our role.
    Making sense is a process we use to become more effective.
    Each of us has to realize that other humans make sense in a different way than we do. Sometimes our senses coincide in our interpretation; often, however, the sense we have differs.
    Our Creator and this world is open to our human senses and our extraordinary intuition.
    The best hope we can have is to create and fulfill our destiny even though life doesn’t make sense.

    From http://bit.ly/qqjG0S

    Comment by Gerry La Londe-Berg — November 13, 2011 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  4. The concept of fairness is indeed a complicated one! It can manifest in many different ways, including via a limited view of the world or a sense of uninterrupted cause and effect, often brought on by a sense of entitlement. Whatever the origin, fairness implies that something – law, social norm, object of authority, higher entity – dictates most right from least right and a violation of such has created unfairness.


    Comment by veritas — November 13, 2011 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  5. Fairness is so subjective. But everyone can point to moments in their life when they weren’t treated “fairly” in their opinion. In my case it was when I was the mother of a two-year-old and trying to find work in a new city. So many times I was praised for how great I was but ultimately the job went to someone else, usually not someone with children. It was the first time in my life I felt I was being discriminated against. I remember crying to my husband “it’s not fair”. It was easy to see that years of feeling constant “unfairness” would result in despair, disengagement, and anger.

    Comment by shambolicliving — November 15, 2011 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  6. 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.

    Comment by Benjamin David Steele — February 25, 2012 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

  7. […] What is Fair? Who Decides? Why Should We Care? Posted on February 25, 2012 by Benjamin David Steele What is Fair? DrAnthonysBlog […]

    Pingback by What is Fair? Who Decides? Why Should We Care? « Marmalade — February 25, 2012 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

  8. Reblogged this on Lies Hurt my Sanity and commented:
    In my house, “That’s not fair!” are heard very often. I have two toddlers. And while that exact phrase does not pass the lips of my husband, I know from conversations that his concept of things it that nothing is fair in regards to himself. He always gets shat on by life. He is the scapegoat, it’s always his fault. His perceptions are flawed.
    Mine are probably flawed too, since I’m always trying to MAKE things fair. Which causes frustration because it’s apparently my job to fix the world.
    I need to change that aspect of myself. I’m not here to fix the world. I need to fix me first.

    Comment by LiesHurtMySanity — March 3, 2012 @ 11:30 am | Reply

  9. Fair or fairness like beauty is in the mind of the beholder. Fairness has 11 definitions in the dictionary. Most involve a personal judgment.

    Comment by Beauthecephus — March 27, 2012 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

  10. Fair or fairness like beauty is in the mind of the beholder. There are 11 definitions of fair in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary. Most require the beholder to decide the meaning.

    Comment by Beauthecephus — March 27, 2012 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  11. As a kid (and even, sometimes, now) I whinged: That’s not fair!
    My father’s response always (and I hope not to offend anyone): Either’s a black man’s bum!

    It took me until I was 16 to understand that – but it shut me up every time!

    Comment by Purple Law Lady — April 8, 2012 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

  12. Those low-circulation scholarly journals, though, are finding new life in the world of the Internet.

    Comment by Russel Ray Photos — May 7, 2012 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

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