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Define Fair



A man gets up on a Saturday morning to find the kids sprawled across the living room deep asleep. This slumber party lasted till dawn, he’s sure of it. Four in total, there are neighborhood kids as well as his own. It’s a regular sleepover tradition.


The man makes himself a latte as quietly as an espresso machine allows and drinks in peace before they all wake up and start with the hungry noises. He looks out the window, decides it’s a good day for pancakes and gets out the mix. Following the instructions to perfection, the first one turns out ridiculously thick – a real double decker pancake – and sends his carefully calibrated mathematical calculations into a tailspin. He adds more milk while quietly cursing under his breath: there won’t be enough to make eight. It won’t be equal. As he works through the batter, careful to craft them all to the same diameter, he still ends up with seven. His solution is elegant and foolproof, he fries up bacon to add to the meal.


The kids bounce, tumble, collide into the kitchen. Two slender pancakes plus bacon for three kids, one double decker high pancake and a bit more bacon for the fourth. Loud cries follow, “That’s not fair!” “How come I only get one?!” “How come she gets more bacon?!” He replies, “It’s a double decker one, it’s twice as high as the others. The bacon makes up for the pancake.” “It’s not the same….” And no one wins. Again.


What would have been fair? Perhaps to divide the pancakes into segments like an orange? Serve an equal number of segments? Cut the bacon until there were enough pieces divisible by four and basically ruin the breakfast entirely by demolishing it into bite sized chunks that are no fun at all? When equal doesn’t satisfy the ‘fair’ impulse either we must evaluate the notion of fair or eliminate it altogether.


Where do kids get the idea that things are going to be or should be fair? I vividly remember my indignance as a child when things weren’t fair. I carried that outrage well into my thirties, until my Pollyanna view of the world was just too embarrassing: until 30+ years of life experience taught me fair isn’t a right, it’s a lucky break. Thus began my descent in mid-life cynicism.


Yet let’s return to the question of how do kid’s get the ridiculous idea that life should and will be fair? My lame Google searches produced interesting research claiming evidence that humans are innately given to seek fairness in life. This was not what I expected.


“As the philosopher John Rawls noted, ‘the fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness’. Fairness is one of the most important foundations of morality in both older and newer theories of moral psychology. Unsurprisingly, fairness concerns have received much attention in the areas of behavioral economics, psychology, and evolutionary biology. Human beings have a substantial desire for fairness and show strong aversions to inequity. Even third parties who do not personally suffer from the inequity will punish others for unfair behavior to achieve fairness. Inequity aversion and the rejection of unfairness are considered essential for maintaining cooperation and reducing opportunities for free riders and thus may have played a key role in the evolution of cooperation in humans.” -- Jing Li, Wen Wang, Jing Yu and Liqi Zhu [1]

I don’t know. This quote is from the introduction of a well-respected study, “yadda, yadda, yadda.” Yet, if that is true, then why are women now being criminalized in the United States for their pregnancies? Why are the religious extremists winning the culture wars? Why are there billionaires? Why is there racism? Why do some people die in car accidents and others don’t? Etc.…?


Was it fair for the man who made the breakfast yet also had to clean up after the kids? Is life fair…ever?


One of the major contributors to my profound sense of disappointment in middle life was the realization that the concept life should be fair was as naïve as it gets. The evidence was incontrovertible. Life doles out pain and aggravation randomly and without thought. From there I experienced a really pissed off phase that went on for a few decades. I kind of took it out on my parents (in my mind only of course) because I felt they were responsible for telling me fairy tales. For leading me on and leaving me unprepared for such disenchantment. How dare they give me a charmed childhood? How dare they instill those values of the Golden Rule. No one else is treating me as they’d like to be treated! Or so I sullenly felt.


But maybe my parents aren’t to blame.


The bottom line here is that children, even young ones, show remarkable sophistication not just in their understanding of and conformity to norms of fairness but also in their ability to enforce fairness in others and to flexibly tune fairness to different situations. These exciting developments dovetail beautifully with work showing that adults are often fair even when they could be selfish, and suggest we need to overhaul the notion that humans are fundamentally out for themselves at the expense of others. Instead, we should adopt the idea that fairness is a key part of our developing minds from as early as they can be studied.”– By Katherine McAuliffe, Peter R. Blake, Felix Warneken [2]

Is fair the child’s word for justice?


Yes. And that’s the interesting new phase in which I find myself now. The Golden Rule isn’t meant to be applied in exchange for tokens to be spent in the spa of self-affirmation. It’s applied to gain the deeper sense of peace that comes from being kind, courteous and a not asshole. On the subject of justice, justice is hard won. Justice survives only through vigilance. Justice needs warriors and heroes and everyday people to stand up and fight the natural impulses of greed and those power-seeking, controlling few who greedily choose themselves over others. I will keep my faith in Justice and in those doing the difficult work on its behalf. Cynicism is for the cowardly in these dark days, don’t you think? Know your enemy and take aim.

[1] frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01274/full [2] Scientific American on Aug 23, 2017

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