Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Where does the notion of fairness come from?

"Life is not fair." That's what my 7th grade teacher told me, whenever I complained to her -- ooh, she made me so mad. I was actually flunking 7th grade; I was so mad at Mrs. Weber that I routinely sabotaged my own assignments to get back at her.

I remember an art project where I made a rather meticulous color drawing of an advent wreath, and then when the class was finishing, I don't remember what triggered it but I felt the uncontrollable urge to spite the teacher -- I crumpled my drawing and then scribbled all over it in black marker and showed it to her. She didn't react at all, which was kind of funny in its own way, and the drawing went up on the wall along with those of all the other students, for the parents to see on open house night. It was a little creepy, all these nice 7th grade drawings and then the one that looked like Eddie Munster did it. I could see the parents looking at it rather odd too, but I guess they all had 7th graders at home so they probably took it in stride.

Seventh grade was when I first started catching my teacher in all sorts of errors, which of course didn't endear me to her. I felt so superior, like Raskolnikov in "Crime & Punishment". I was constantly arguing with her about test and quiz answers; and in most cases I was technically in the right, but the official rules in academia aren't always the ones that apply. Hence my teacher's relish at pointing out life's fundamental inequitability.

Seeing that I was failing, my parents eventually intervened and took me to a shrink, who said I was plenty smart and good natured, and all that was needed was for someone to clean out my room of all the junk. I collected every kind of junk, I have a talent for seeing the usefulness in everything. The dump was my very favorite place in the world, back then when scavenging was allowed. My dad would unload rocks and debris from our yard, and I would want to fill the trailer up again with cool things that other people had discarded. Anyway, they cleaned out my room and then I got along fine in school from then on. (I still don't quite understand why that worked. :)

Ever since then, I pondered the notion of "fairness". It's a little like religion. It seems like the utility of the concept is primarily to discourage individuals from seeking to benefit themselves at the expense of the group. Individuals may lose their motivation to cooperate if they feel that someone may engage preemptively in competitive behavior and take advantage of their cooperative stance.

For example, if a baseball coach picks his lineup based on his feelings about the kids' parents, this could demotivate the players stuck in the outfield or sitting on the bench. Whereas if the coach bases his choices on reasonable tests of capability and performance, the players will see that their skills and hard work can pay off.

It makes sense for society to want us to base employment or academic decisions on merit. And people are often tempted to base decisions on other things -- our coach might expect some quid pro quo from the pitcher's father, for instance, that he'd miss out on if he put the kid where he belonged, in right field. Hence the need for a morality of fairness.

But nature isn't fair. Some kids are born with incredible talent, while other kids might work harder and still come up short, at least in a particular area, such as sports, music, math, language skills, or good looks. In most situations, society wants us to base decisions on merit, but there are times when we are expected to factor out innate abilities and base decisions on effort, or time on task, or progress.

The most common of these is tracking people by age (as in school), gender (volleyball), weight (boxing, and contrariwise in airfare or theatre seating), income (taxes), parental educational achievement (financial aid for college), and mental soundness (cf. the insanity defense in criminal cases).

Weight is a good example. Bigger people eat more, and so they have to pay more for food. On the other hand, XXL clothes require much more cloth but cost the same as size S. Their cars use more fuel and wear out faster, but their plane tickets cost the same. There are thousands of situations in which being bigger costs more, which seems fair, and thousands of situations in which being bigger doesn't cost more, which also seems fair. If we reversed all those situations, or made them all one way or the other it would arguably still be fair.

What we call "fair" is just that, what we call "fair". There is no external reality called "fair". There are no level playing fields in real life. However, we have the ability to declare a playing field level, and we do this all the time. Some people feel that racial quotas are fair, other people feel that discrimination is fair. Actually, everyone feels each of these things in different situations, we just disagree on which situations. How can we judge who is right?

Well, our goal is that every human being has a high quality of life. So I declare everything that leads to that FAIR, and everything that goes the other way UNFAIR. This might frighten some people. Hitler and Stalin and Mao made this kind of statement, and decided it was OK to kill millions of people. But what was the result? Higher quality of life for everyone? I don't think so. The basis of my condemnation of those actions is that it lowered (or ended) quality of life for millions of people. There may have been a rise in quality of life for some, but not for all.

Another important note I want to make on fairness. Triage is fair. If you want to have a large positive impact on the world, you have to start somewhere. The best place to start is the place you can do the most good (raising quality of life for the most people) the fastest. This is not always the place in the most need. There is an order to the operations that results in the largest benefit, and that is the order we should follow. In my opinion.


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