My Own Pie

Libertarian Thoughts from Renaissance Guy

To Be Fair

with 4 comments

     I’m sure that all parents have been through it.  My parents certainly have.  I have been through it as a parent.  I assume that either you put your own parents through it or your children put you through it or both.

     It usually comes in a nasally, high-pitched voice and is accompanied by folded arms and pouty lips.  “It’s not fair!” the “wounded” child exclaims.

     Taking my cue from a couple of parents whom I greatly admire, I decided to deal with the claim of unfairness by teaching my children the true meaning of the word fair.  I made a poster with the word and its definition to put on the wall and referred to it whenever the whiny accusation was thrown at their mother or me.

     FAIR:  when each person gets exactly what he or she deserves by his or her own merit or as a result of his or her own effort.

     We had numerous discussions about the implications and applications of that definition.  Because we recognize that children are self-centered, we usually couched it in terms of themselves:

     What should happen if somebody hits you?  (Answer:  They should apologize and be punished.)  In that case, you shoud accept that if you lose your temper and hit somebody, you must apologize and take your punishment.

     What should happen if somebody was willing to help you clean up your room?  (Answer:  I should give them something as a reward for helping me.)  Then do not get upset if one of your siblings gets paid for a chore that they did.  If you do extra chores, you will also get paid. 

     We told them that if Mom of Dad really do something unfair, we are willing to hear them out, and if they are right, to apologize and make amends.  However, Mom and I were not willing to hear them whine or see them pout.  We would evaluate each case as it arose, according to the definition of fairness that we posted.

     If G said, “It’s not fair that V got to watch that video and I didn’t,” then we said, “Wait a minute.  We promised the video as a reward for cleaning your room.  V cleaned her room, but you did not.  Therefore, you are each getting what you deserve.  Therefore, it is fair.”

     If E said, “It’s not fair that you promised me some ice cream but didn’t give me any.”  We said, “Oops!  You’re right.  If you were promised ice cream, then it’s fair for us to give it to you.  We messed up.  We’ll go and get you some right now.”

     I’m afraid that a lot of adults still have an inaccurate view of fairness.  They think it means having things turn out to their advantage, rather than having each person what he or she deserves by his or her own merits or effort.  I have been told that it is unfair for some people to be poor while other people are rich.  Well, yes and no.

     It is unfair for a person to be poor because somebody else tricked them out of their money or failed to compensate them for labor that they performed.  It is not unfair for a person to be poor because that person has chosen not to work or has chosen to waste his or her money on drugs or gambling.  It is unfair, in a vast, cosmic sense, for a person to be poor because that person was born with a disability or because that person tried really hard but outside forces caused them to fail.  In that case, such a person should receive our compassion and help.  It is not unfair for a person to be poor if that person tries one harebrained scheme after another or loses one job after another due to a bad attitude.  (I know people like that; in fact, I am related to some people like that.)

     It is unfair for a person to become rich by scamming other people or by simple stealing.  It is not unfair for a person to become rich by inventing something useful and charging people money to purchase it.  It is unfair for a person to become rich by exploiting or oppressing other people or by taking bribes or by extortion or by embezzlement.  It is not unfair for a person to become rich by impressing his employers so much that they give him or her promotions and bonuses.  It is unfair, in a cosmic sense, for a person to become rich simply by inheriting wealth from his or her ancestors.  Then again, it is perfectly fair for wealthy people to pass on their wealth to their children, if they wish to do so.  It is not unfair for a person to open a business and impress his or her customers so much that the business makes huge profits.

     Before we throw around loaded words like fair and unfair, we should think really carefully about what they mean.  Actually, we should think about the concepts behind the words, and what they actually are.  We should not just act childishly and whine, if things don’t go our way, “It’s not fair.”


Written by ambrosianideas

July 21, 2010 at 12:35 am

Posted in Miscellaneous

4 Responses

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  1. […]      “To Be Fair“ […]

  2. I think it will be pretty easy to agree in the abstract on what fairness is. The hard part would be in the details of whether or not a condition is unfair. Is it fair that sweat shop workers work in horrible conditions making cheap textiles so wealthy Americans can buy $3 shirts at Walmart? There is no way to answer that simply from the definition of “fair,” there are so many other factors that go into analyzing that situation. Ultimately it will come down to the values and interpretation of the person deciding whether or not to label it fair. People will disagree, so on issues like this fairness ultimately ends up to be a political question.

    There is legitimacy in having a good abstract definition, to be sure. But even the drug abuser example raises questions — were the condition this person grew up in conducive to having good role models and learning how to make good choices? If not, does that mean there are vast inequities not caused by a person’s own efforts that hit a group or community far more than others? Finally, we might agree that it is unfair — unfair he did not have the opportunities others had — but still think that any potential remedy would be worse, would cause even more unfair action.

    Also, there is the whole ontological debate of society vs. individual. You have a perspective that is heavily on the side of identifying individuals as the main ontological unit, with a distrust of dealing with society. I tend to see society and culture as far more prominent in creating individual identities and outcomes. That will also color how we interpret ‘fairness,’ or how it gets defined (for instance, I do not agree that it’s necessarily ‘fair’ that people can give all their wealth to whomever they want when they die).

    Still, conceptual clarity is important. If we know why we interpret fairness differently (it’s not just an emotional ‘that’s what I feel’ or ‘things didn’t go like I want’), then at least we identify where differences of opinion or core values exist. That makes it easier to at least understand other points of view.

    Scott Erb

    July 22, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  3. Is it fair that children work in sweat shops? I think that is the wrong question. A better question is whether it is good or right. Clearly it is not. One thing that would help is if those textiles could be made almost as cheaply in America, but thanks to government policies and unions (who have politicians in their back pockets), that is not possible.

    I discount your comments about drug abuse and societal influences. Lots of kids in the ghetto stay clear of drugs while lots of suburban kids are addicts. Certainly conditions make a person more likely to make bad choices; they don’t predetermine it. My brother and sister have made some lousy choices, probably due in part to our upbringing. My other sister in I have chosen to make better choices despite our bad upbringing.

    You really ought to read your Thoreau again. Lots of people march to the beat of a different drummer. Any person worthy of admiration does.

    Your last paragraph sounds good. However, I think it obfuscates the issue. It is pretty obvious that if I look at the huge house my neighbors live in and say it’s not fair that they are so well off, I am really saying that I envy them and that I feel sorry for myself. It’s a childish attitude to ignore that they started a business and worked in it for 72 hours a week for 10 years to finally afford a nice home to live in.


    July 22, 2010 at 9:52 pm

  4. The problem is that while some can make it out of the ghetto and the like, most don’t. It’s possible, but not probable. Meanwhile, almost everyone in the suburbs has a probability of being able to have a decent job and education. In social science we deal in probabilities — it seems that it takes a much more special person putting in more effort to succeed in one context than another. It’s not just the individual effort, but depending on your station in life a different amount of effort and determination is needed to succeed. The reason is power — some groups have more power than others, and that gets reflected in social circumstances.

    Scott Erb

    July 23, 2010 at 3:28 am

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