Last 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.