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.

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Original image from this site.

24 Comments

  1. Thank you for these two articles. I spent some time explaining ‘life is not fair’ to my children; they are in their 30s now. I think they all understood and two of them have referred back to it in recent years.

    I get particularly irritated by politicians who use ‘fair’. I think they mean something like: ‘I am going to us the word ‘fair’ instead of specifying what I really intend to do. I know you will all interpret it differently and closer to what you want than what I have in mind.’

  2. Even if every parcel of land, water, and air could be split in such a way that all agree is fair…

    This is an impossibilty. Fairness is a function of perception. One person will consider a given distribution fair and another person will consider the same distribution unfair.

  3. Does any of this relate to well-fare?

    Seems like you’ve dug up a logical fallacy there Mr Briggs.

    I hear so much about fair and equitable, but I guess these words like so many others, are simply newspeek words to keep the people comfortable.

  4. Even if the existence of god is a logical possibility, the existence of two gods with logically incompatible attributes at the same time is a logical impossibility. As is the existence of three gods with incompatible attributes, and so on.

    Regarding fairness, experiments have shown that capuchin monkeys know about it too. Let two perform the same task, give one a piece of cucumber and the other a grape, making sure both see what the other monkey get, and the one with the cucumber will act “Not Fair”, by refusing to do any more tasks and by throwing away the cucumber.

    Generalizing, fairness is about treating people the same way in the same circumstances. Treat them unfair, and they refuse to cooperate in the future. Which means that fairness is the mechanism to keep a cooperating group of people cooperating, instead of falling apart.

  5. Having two girls of the same age, I heard enough share of the mischievous outcry, “it’s not fair!” One of them, pretending to rub the tears from her eyes with both hands, could cry with one eye and peek through fingers to see my reaction with another. Little kids are funny!

    Fair treatment and equal treatment are different, so are fair pay and equal pay. When I pay more attention to the sick child, the other one would understand it’s fair.

    It is impossible for me to be a perfect mom, and wishing for it is useless. However, it’s a worthy goal to strive for, and there are some steps or ways one could take to get near it… I know I’ll be a great grandma!

    To achieve word peace is unlikely and seems impossible in my lifetime, but it can’t be given up. Of course, this is just my view.

    If these women and many others didn’t refuse to listen to the logic, women’s suffrage wouldn’t have been possible.

  6. Sander van der Wal,

    But with the monkeys, we have the problem of regress. How do we know their behavior is “fair”? Only by respect to our judgments, or to some rule like “utility of bananas” which we—not they—say is important and true.

  7. The whole post is pure sophistry. The kind of relativistic shenanigan one could only hope to hear or read from the likes of Derridá. “because absolute X is impossible, then X is impossible, and fighting for it ludicrous, silly”. Of course, this attack on not only common sense but also our culture as a whole has the sole function to tell us that we should obey mr. Briggs’ imaginary friend, for only he can be absolutely right. This is clinical, psychotic philosophy. Vade retro!

  8. Luis is right–the post never gets to anything substantive. Ultimately the arguments & “logic” used to affirm that “life isn’t fair” can readily be twisted, or used directly, to justify unfair actions.

    More to the point, what “fair” or “fairness” means is undefined. The concept of “fairness” needs context to have any meaning; devoid of context, substance in any discussion or diatribe must be lacking. Many very young children, for example, will cry “unfair!!” and with a brief explanation of what constitutes fairness (e.g. in some game) will rapidly accept the criteria…and what was “unfair” becomes perceived as “fair.”

    Milton Friedman, for example, addresses the theme of “fairness” as it relates to certain economic considerations–equal pay for equal work, for example; there he notes that where a situation is “unfair” (e.g. men get paid more than women), mandating equal-pay-for-equal-work to induce “fairness” in this area actually has a very significant detrimental impact against the very group it is intended to help — and in the context of just “fairness” it is “unfair” to impose rules that further oppress oppressed groups in the name/ideology of helping them (women, if allowed to demand less pay for equal work, induce an opportunity cost on hiring men; this serves their short-term interest in getting an income as many prejudiced men will be induced to hire some women; longer-term, this furthers women’s long-term interest in changing perceptions & prejudices and leads to greater equality in pay for work–greater fairness). For that see:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRpEV2tmYz4

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsIpQ7YguGE

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCnxOICRtLE

    Note the depth of insight & understanding achieved in relatively few words & time.

    But just blathering around an ill-defined concept ensures nothing substantial will ever be addressed nor will any meaningful insight into anything be learned. Ever. But it gives warm comfort, to some, because that superficial approach allows a desired position/view/value to be concluded without having to address any real-word issue(s) and the inevitable trade-offs, which is probably the real point. The risk though, is that such rationale readily lends itself to support an opposed value: superficially prove that “life is unfair” and you’ve probably provided compelling justification for someone else to justify & maintain “unfair” behavior–because that’s how things are & that’s that.

  9. I am reminded of the parable in the bible:

    Matthew 20:1-16

    “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

    “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

    “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

    “’Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

    “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

    “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

    “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

    “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

    “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

    When something can be both fair and unfair, it suggests that the concept of fairness is a bit fuzzy.

  10. Often, in contract negotiations, the fairest deal is when neither party is happy.

    But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. …

    Bet the price jumps the next time, though.

  11. The point of both life isn’t Fair articles seems to be since perfect fairness isn’t possible, trying to do better then perfect unfairness is pointless.

    Personally I would call that BS.

  12. Bernie,

    The Matthew verses make perfect economic sense. It is just supply and demand. As workers became harder to get he had to pay them more on an hourly basis. These later workers were also taking the chance that they would not be needed at all and would therefore get paid nothing. This may not be a minister approved interpretation but it is mine. I agree with your final statement though: the concept of fairness, being emotional, is indeed fuzzy.
    On the other hand a sense of fairness, however defined, can be useful when you have to keep peace among a group of people. I don’t dispute that.

    MattS,

    I find it highly unlikely that Briggs is saying that.

  13. William Sears,

    “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.”

    P.S. Any relation to the Sears of Sears department stores?

  14. >>(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.)

    LMAO. Would this e(x)ternal life be fair?

  15. Matt,

    Sears of the department store? Another highly unlikely interpretation. Actually the co-founder “Richard Sears” left no children and I believe that the store is now owned by K-Mart. My only relation is that I sometimes shop there.

  16. I am aware that Sears is now owned by K-Mart. I wasn’t aware that the founder of Sears had no heirs.

  17. William:
    Perhaps you are correct and I certainly have never heard a priest give your interpretation of this particular parable. Frankly I have never heard a priest explain the parable well at all. It was, of course, meant as a parable which in itself reduces the chances that it is talking about the supply an demand of labor. If we assume for the sake of argument that it is a parable with some moral lesson alluded too, then I think my last statement holds pretty well.

  18. Bernie,

    I think that the parable references a commonly observed economic reality that the contemporary listeners would be familiar with. This allowed Jesus to add a spiritual lesson that would be easily understood. I think that the lesson is that salvation can be obtained even late in the day, although at some risk for waiting. Please note that I am not claiming any expertise in biblical matters nor am I stating any personal beliefs or lack of the same.

    The Sears Kmart merger is more complicated than any one of us has stated. See:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sears_Holdings

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sears_Canada

    The danger of relying on memory.

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