Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fair v. Fair

There has been a lot of talk lately about fairness in society or social justice. Although the talk of income equality seems to speak to an inherent idea of fairness, I have never felt comfortable with the concept in general. Then I came to the conclusion that there are in actuality, two very different definitions of fairness that we experience as humans. I will call one idea “compassionate fairness” and the other “achievement-based fairness.”

Compassionate Fairness

I grew up in a family of six children where sibling rivalry was practically an institution. Whenever we had the opportunity to eat ice cream for dessert, my mother weighed each portion to insure that no child had more ice cream then the next. If there were even a possibility of unequal amounts, the screams of unfairness would be heard down the block. We believed that since we were all basically on the same level, children, we all deserved the same amount of ice cream. Since my parents tried not to favor any one child over another, they thought the same thing.

I call this concept of fairness compassionate because it does not hold any person higher than another. Compassionate fairness does not care if you are old, young, rich, or poor. Every individual is treated the same. This is the idea of fairness that seems to dominate the national discussion.

Achievement-Based Fairness

I was a terrible student. I would rarely study and most assignments were completed with little interest in going the extra mile. As expected, my grades were less than stellar. Naturally I did not like getting poor grades, but I also knew that I deserved them. It would have been unfair to the students that put forth an effort for me to receive similar marks.

Achievement-based fairness makes a distinction between people based on the effort and accomplishments of the individual. The rewards in life are completely distributed in direct proportion to the amount of effort devoted to achieving those rewards. It compensates the industrious and punishes the indolent. This concept of fairness is often overlooked during discussions of social justice.

The Better Idea

Does one concept of fairness trump the other? I do not think so. I believe that both ideas have their place. It is incorrect to rely solely on one idea and ignore the other. No two people are placed into same circumstances when they are born, a problem that achievement-based fairness cannot resolve. Some people are lazy while others are productive, an issue that compassionate fairness cannot reconcile.

If a teacher averages all the grades in a classroom and gives every student that average grade, it would only benefit half the class at the expense of the other. This practice would discourage study and learning since they would not improve one’s grades. Compassionate fairness fails to compensate for personal achievement.

On the other hand, if some students could not even show up to class because of the socio-economic conditions they were born in to, they would never be able achieve any grades. Achievement-based fairness does not provide a common starting point from which people can begin to achieve. The most productive person in the slums will never have more money than the lazy heir to a fortune.

There are many more complexities in the discussion on fairness than I have mentioned. One being the idea of innate talent. Some people, by no effort of their own, are gifted by enormous talent. Is it fair that they were born with it? How would compassionate fairness distribute that talent? Would success be an achievement if there was no effort to obtain it? Is it fair that people are different?

Final Thoughts

Both concepts of fairness are at complete odds with each other. The reliance on one creates unfairness in the other. Any appeal to fairness by either side of the debate is an appeal to unfairness on the other. In essence, life is not fair and never will be. Instead of wasting resources and time trying to make life fair, we should be devoting our time to making the best of the cards dealt to us. Fairness is a dream.