William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 152 of 541

Life Isn’t Fair: Part II

No Goats AllowedLast time we explored a small list of items in which fairness in circumstance are impossible. These were sex, place and time of birth, physical location (we all can’t be in the same spot), physicality (we all can’t be the same person, even if all our genes match), and so on.

But there are also possessions (all material objects), which can never be distributed in such a way that all would consider fair. Even if every parcel of land, water, and air could be split in such a way that all agree is fair, the distribution would instantaneously shift (via trading, death, birth, insanity, illegalities, creation of new objects, the change or destruction of objects, etc.) such that the distribution is not fair.

Why is any of this important? Because if a certain thing cannot be, if it is logically impossible for a thing to happen, then wishing for it is useless, and “aiming” towards it is impossible. You cannot approximate what cannot be. You cannot implement a program that aims to get as close as humanly possible to what is impossible because you cannot get close to nothing, nor can you be far from it.

People do, of course, aim for “fairness.” Since this is impossible, the main point of this essay is to show that the goal of these people must be something else.

(An analogy for impossibility is not, incidentally, external life and the existence of God. These are not logical impossibilities. They may be improbable (given certain evidence), but that is nothing. They are possible and can be imagined. They can be “aimed” at.)

But fairness defined in terms of circumstance is not possible. At least, as long as fairness itself is defined in terms of agreement (on principles, rules, etc.). How about fairness with respect to treatment? Well, that’s impossible, too. Not in instances, of course, but universally.

It should be obvious that not all people can be treated identically. We can treat (by some act or non-act) all people identically, but at the disadvantage that this act/non-act will not occur in identical situations for each person, because no situations are ever identical in all aspects, at least with respect to time, location, physicality, and material circumstance. The river flows ever onward.

This nauseating precision is necessary to demonstrate that fairness in treatment, as it usually understood, can only be defined conditionally upon agreed and rigorously defined sets of circumstance and caveats. For example, we might all agree that it is fair for a murderer to be put to (a premature) death. We might augment this agreement with caveats: death shall not be hastened unless the murderer is at least 17, and so forth.

Or we could all agree that car drivers who fail to come to a complete stop at a sign will pay a fine. Or that rental properties shall be let without discrimination based on the tenant’s physical characteristics. These rules are, of course, our laws and other codifications.

But laws are not universally considered fair, nor can they be. Consider that any set of laws over a people were not agreed to by all; they were certainly not agreed to by those not alive at the time of the laws’ adoptions, who nevertheless are born to them and must live under them. There are almost certainly laws, rules, strictures, and so forth that you find unfair now that others say are fair. Note that a specific law can still be unfair even if all agree that the procedure that leads to laws is fair—all might agree on and to be bound by democracy, for example, but some can still find individual laws unfair. (Is it inevitable that democracies must end in Brave New World? Probably.)

There are only two possibilities left. The first is that fairness is defined by agreement (by rules which are themselves agreed to, etc.). But in this way lies madness: consider the body count that resulted from this interpretation in the Twentieth Century. However, this way does indicate that when somebody shouts, “Unfair!” he has in mind a set of conditions and caveats that he feels that all should agree with.

But he usually seeks to bypass mentioning or arguing for these conditions and caveats. The argument is always a moral one, usually with each side (of many) convinced its side is the only correct one. Not just this, but also “obviously correct”, which is why it is felt that the conditions and caveats needn’t be stressed.

The other possibility is that there exists a foundational set of true ethics and morals which we can aim at. About this, more next time.


Original image from this site.

Life Isn’t Fair: Part I

Crying HelpsI’m traveling these next few days and unable to put up new material. This post, which is more relevant today and which I wish I could edit, originally appeared on 11 May 2011.

Mothers used to be terrific repositories of cultural wisdom. A good number of them were mean philosophers, too. But, with rare exceptions, this is no longer so. What this falling away spells for the future our civilization can only be guessed at.

Used to be when Junior ran into the house, his eyes full of tears because Johnny down the block had a new toy which he did not, or because Johnny could go somewhere he could not, Junior would stammer that this was a manifest injustice. To irrevocably close the subject, Mom would explain, “Life isn’t fair.” If Junior failed to accept this truth on the force of Mom’s authority, her argument might be accompanied by material or corporal proof.

If Mom would have had the patience and the time, she could have explained not only why life isn’t fair, but that it couldn’t possibly be fair no matter who would attempt to make it so, and regardless of their good intentions. Moms are now too busy to impart this most valuable lesson. Or perhaps they have forgotten it.

For example, I saw Mom the other day in the park reading The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book which I bet says not one word about the inherent unfairness of life.

Too, many moms are having one kid instead of many, so instead of being an advocate between the kidlings in her own brood, she has become one for her own among other moms’ kids, where instead of intoning her old wisdom, it is frequently her that says, “That’s not fair!”

I thus present this brief article as a service for today’s moms who may have forgotten what their mothers told them, and whose children are badly in need of learning that life isn’t fair.

Fair is one of those words of which everybody knows the definition, a definition everybody assumes is shared by everybody else. This is not so. Clearly Junior had a different idea of what fair meant than did his mother or Johnny. Disagreement about definitions is only one reason why life cannot be fair.

It is clear that the idea people have in mind is fairness with regard to circumstance and with regard to treatment. Circumstance are such things as birth location and place of residence, genetic sex, possessions and so forth. Treatment is conduct towards you or another from a person or persons.

Even if we perfected cloning such that we have discovered a way that exact genetic duplicates (without random mutations) of sexless humans can be produced, no two of these creatures can be “born” or whelped at the same place and time. This is unfair to many: to all those who have come before this Utopian technology was created, including those long dead, and to those who would have chosen a different production location if they could.

Note that while production place can be centralized, unfairness is forever un-fixable in time. For example, the clones produced at the Central Birthing Hub will still come one after the other, with those born this year suffering the lack of improvement realized by those born a century hence. Or if conditions are worse 100 years from now, those produced sooner will realize greater benefits than those who come after.

Since this genetic perfection is unlikely and probably impossible, there will always be fixed unfairness with birth location and time, genetic sex, and the myriad other genetic components which make people different. That is, no matter how strongly fairness is desired, some will be taller, more muscular, sexier, funnier, smarter, and so on. And there is nothing that can be done to alleviate this injustice.

At a start, fairness—or equality—in circumstance is an impossibility. Not just is it unlikely, but it is impossible: at least, if fairness is defined in this respect. It is also important not confuse fairness or unfairness with respect to circumstance with that of treatment. For example, of two people, one might be male the other female and that both are treated the same by all others their entire life. But because males and females suffer unequal burdens and have different abilities, the unfairness due to these differences cannot be eliminated.

Supreme Court And Proposition 8: A Few Thoughts

One of the more curious tidbits to arise out of yesterday’s oral arguments (pdf) over California’s Prop 8 was that that state’s constitution has been amended some 500 times. Those of us who don’t live there have always thought the place a little squirrely, but come on. That averages out to three amendments to its foundational document every year!

Donald Verrilli, esquire and Solicitor General of the land, was there as a sort of official buttinksy, and was fretting that if Prop 8 were upheld, there would be a “permanent ban” on same-sex marriage. This prompted Justice Alito to remind Verrrilli that “permanent” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, at least in the Golden State.

The next matter, of significantly more import, was a comment by Theodore Olson, another esquire who sought the demolition of Prop 8. He said, “The California Supreme Court, like this Supreme Court, decides what the law is.” Somebody wise once said all flattery should be resisted. Justice Scalia, at least, did not resist, and agreed that the Court decides the law.

This is false, though Scalia is far from the only one to believe it (given the remainder of his questioning, it is more than possible Scalia was being sardonic and does not literally believe the Court makes law). Congress decides the law. The Court assumed the role of saying only whether those laws accord with the Constitution. The Court cannot make law, though courts often do. Chief Justice Roberts used this line of reasoning when upholding Obamacare, did he not?

Many want the Supreme Court to make the law as the 9th Circuit Court did, and discover a right to marriage for same-sex couples which was previously hidden and that only justices can see. Presumably they will wear special glasses. Incidentally, that’s “couples” and not “triples” or “quadruples”, etc. After all, if Bob & Ted can wed, why not Bob & Ted & Mark & John?

No, really. Why not? (It will be interesting to see who avoids this question. It is not an argument to say, “Nobody is asking for this”, because that is false and an evasion.)

Item number three: with no exception, everybody in the oral arguments assumed marriage is a right, is necessary, good, the foundation of society. All paid this institution stirring compliments. All assumed, or said, the state of matrimony just wonderful. All assumed it was two people. Why is that?

Number four, Chief Justice Roberts questioning Verrilli:

— I — it seems to me that your position that you are supporting is somewhat internally inconsistent. We see the argument made that there is no problem with extending marriage to same-sex couples because children raised by same-sex couples are doing just fine and there is no evidence that they are being harmed. And the other argument is Proposition 8 harms children by not allowing same-sex couples to marriage. Which is it?

General Verrilli stammered out “stabilizing effect”, but could offer nothing concrete. Many are talking of the “science” of kids raised under dual-same-sex-parent households, agreeing that there are many uncertainties. Mark Regnerus’s study wasn’t brought up, but Regnerus suggested other than the desired answer.

Anyway, it wouldn’t matter if kids statistically were the same under dual-same-sex-parent households as under real families, because the question of re-defining marriage is not a scientific but a moral question.

This was missed by Charles Cooper, esquire number three and the only fellow supporting Prop 8, who was asked by Justice Kagan:

…suppose a State said that, Because we think that the focus of marriage really should be on procreation, we are not going to give marriage licenses anymore to any couple where both people are over the age of 55. Would that be constitutional?

Kagan was thinking that old women have difficulty becoming pregnant, yet still these aged females wed. She was trying to get Cooper to admit that sometimes marriages, even though primarily designed for procreation, isn’t always. Cooper didn’t buy it and said the government would have to ask whether each of a couple was fertile on a marriage certificate.

But Cooper missed his chance to bring up natural law. It’s not that every instance of a real marriage produces issue, but that it is in the nature of one male and one female becoming one flesh to bring forth issue. That some marriage are against this nature does not invalidate the nature. (Bonus points for examples why. Hint: what does “men are taller than women” mean?)

Lastly, it’s anybody’s guess what the Court will do. Though I do note that Justice Sotomayor’s questions were not entirely “with the program.” I mean the progressive program. Perhaps that reflects her upbringing? We’ll see.

Best Books Project

Best Books ProjectI need your help. Together, we will reach out to those whom we consider to be possessed of the Biggest Brightest Brains and ask them to provide a list of must-read books.

There is praise to be had for the mediocre, the entertaining, the quixotic. But time is pressing and attention must needs be focused. Let us ask our betters what are the quintessential positive works to which we should commit ourselves. Which are the constructive books that led them to the views which they now hold, the views which, to our eyes anyway, make us consider these people worthy of respect?

By “constructive” I mean Das Kapital or Introduction to Psychoanalysis, as important as they are to history, won’t appear because they are entirely destructive. (Yes, if you consider Marxist or Freudian works to be compelling, you are invited not to contribute.)

Let’s not add books which we ourselves find worthy, lest this degenerate into another Internet list ending with Ayn Rand and the autobiography of [Insert Faddish Celebrity Here] top of the pops.

I’m counting on you to put in the leg work on this. If we don’t sweat, this effort will fail. You’ll have to track down and pester people on your own. And you’ll have to remember to do it, which is worse. Call them, email them, find them at book signings, lectures, or elsewhere.

Which people? Any whom you consider brilliant—which does not mean “academic” (though many brilliant academics exist). Those whom you are certain sure who legacies will be lasting.

We can’t, at least until the last trump, question the dead, but if you are able to produce solid evidence that a past peerless personage recommended a book, then send it along, too.

Books may be in any language on any subject, in or out of print. The only criterion is that they should be fundamental, foundational, and generally positive and constructive.

Write them below, or if you prefer anonymity, email all names and lists to books@wmbriggs.com.

Please use the following template. Feel free, of course, to add your own salutations etc. but keep intact the central plea.

Dear [Insert Name Here],

Could I beg of you the favor of listing no more than 10 books which you consider fundamental, foundational, and generally positive and constructive?

We are collecting a list of the best books recommended from the best minds, which will be published broadly (and freely) on the Internet. Please don’t worry about naming the obvious or consider that another might name a well known work. Just put down what you think is best.

The list will be at http://wmbriggs.com/bestbooks

I am reaching out to you because of my admiration for your achievements and because I believe we could all benefit from your experience about what is the best way to gain knowledge through reading.

Simply, the books you list should be those that you wish everybody would read.

Thanks very much for your help.


Yours Truly

The list will be compiled, covered with our own blend of secret statistical sauce, and revealed in the space below.

Please copy this post far and wide; email it around. Tweet it, update your Facebook status with it (use the buttons below). I’ll remind us of the project from time to time, keeping it “sticky” by putting a link in the right sidebar. I imagine this will take months to years to complete.

Incidentally, I had a stab at such a list (my own choices) some month’s back. Essential (Philosophical) Conservative Book List; Initial Post.

Best Book List

Book, Author, Recommender

Bible, God et alia, Obvious.

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