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« The Unfairness of Fair: Part Two | Main | Accessorizing the Life »

The Unfairness of Fair: Part One

Kristen is a beautiful, intelligent, young woman, twenty-three years old. On the day she was to take a new job in a major city, she was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had gone to the doctor complaining of a persistent cough, unexplained weight loss and other symptoms, never imagining what was happening in her body. A grim appointment with an oncologist and scheduling chemotherapy replaced the excitement over her upcoming move and new position.

Brian is a highly motivated, disciplined pre-med student, also twenty-three years old and still weighing out the career decisions he would be making in the next few months. His plans were interrupted by preliminary reports of a serious kidney disease. Instead of deciding his schedule of classes, he met with medical professionals to decide how aggressive his treatment strategy would be and the impact it would have on his life as a student and beyond.

Chase, a twenty year old laborer in the oil business, was widely known as a hard working and a loving, generous young man. He was a major source of income for his mother and siblings, often spending extravagantly on them. While cutting used pipeline from scaffolding, his welding arc touched off an explosion of a fifteen thousand pound pipe containing natural gas. Chase was only two feet away from the blast. He never knew what hit him.

At the opposite end of fate’s spectrum, we have this. Mark Zuckerberg, dubbed an innovator with a genius instinct, developed the social networking site Facebook at age nineteen. With a reported 110 million subscribers, Facebook has turned this young, Harvard dropout into a billionaire. Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Shawn Fanning (Napster) and a long line of youthful geniuses whose wealth is now stratospheric, all join the club of gifted (some would say lucky) achievers.

Such wild fluctuations in fate evoke an outcry against the unfairness of life, as if a master, mystical bean-counter totally lost his mind. Many people, convinced that sinister forces are at work to punish good and reward evil, are overcome with bitterness. Others become depressed, thinking that God has something personal against them. Even if we dare to think these thoughts, most sane people—like us—dismiss them and determine to deal with life as it comes. In our more philosophical moments, however, the nagging question of “why” chews at the edges of our conscience.

Western culture has conditioned us to believe in the concept of fairness as an overarching fact of life. We instinctively expect equal treatment by others. We act under the assumption that we deserve the best life has to offer, just for being alive. We feel entitled to certain definitions of happiness such as good health, financial security, family welfare and the equal opportunity to achieve our life’s goals. Sure, we will tolerate minor setbacks in the general scheme of things, mainly because we admit to a bit of “fairness” in struggling. When those setbacks seem disproportional to our sense of fairness, however, we become discouraged, depressed and disparaging of the meaning of life.

The expectation of fairness in political life pervades our system of codes and laws. The founding fathers built into our governmental structure fair elections, fair treatment in a court of law, fairness in tax assessments, fairness in the military draft, and fairness in all aspects of governing the citizenry. Gaping loopholes and partisan administration have kept the system from a perfect application, but the concept suffuses our national conscience, nevertheless. It is still a work in progress because many areas of life exist into which fairness has not yet filtered. We continue to address such grievances. In a presentation to the Keeping the Lights on Human Rights Conference, Amnesty International, February 9, 2006, Gregory J. Levine, Ph.D.,LL.B., Barrister and Solicitor gives a representative statement on the accepted philosophy of fairness.

“At some intuitive and primeval level we all crave for fairness, for fair play and for fair treatment. We long for justice in our lives, for ourselves and our fellow travelers and fairness is a quintessential part of that longing. Fairness and equality are cornerstones of justice. Fairness ultimately is founded on respect for humanity, on mutual respect, on democratic impulses and on profound senses of social responsibility.

Our desire for fairness is found in situations great and small. Indeed it is in seemingly little injustices, if there truly are little injustices, that we often see the need for fair process and fair treatment most clearly…fairness is a human right, that fair treatment of individuals by each other and by institutions is essential for human dignity to be respected.”

This makes sense from a legal, political point of view. Equal rights under the law? Absolutely. Fair treatment from authorities? No question. Right to a free, public education? Yes. But then, we start getting into grayer areas. Is fairness to be defined as a human right? Although we might instinctively answer yes, we’re not really sure. How far do we go with this? Do we have a right to good health and good health care? (i.e., is it fair that some people can afford good health care and others cannot?) Do we have a right to a job, a home, clothes, a car? (i.e., it is fair that some people make more money than others?) Do we have a right to certain possessions, like an air conditioner, a television, a computer, a telephone? Such arguments juxtapose a conservative view against a liberal one. Strict, narrow-minded conservatives say no. Magnanimous liberals say yes. The fairness football thus gets kicked from one end zone to the other, depending on the political powers of the day.

No less a source than Time Magazine has helped to propagate this perception. Although this quote is decades old, it captures the sense of the concept still in vogue. “Certainly a principal purpose of human government must be to mitigate the unfairness that seems to be an integral part of human life—or, at the very least, not to compound it. The judicial system is meant to mediate, to knock the chaos of human behavior into a manageable pattern. The goal of fairness underlies American education, which has been regarded, sometimes more hopefully than accurately, as the way to give everyone an equal chance. Medicaid was meant to provide fairness in health care, so that if a poor man needs an $800 appendectomy or a $15,000 coronary bypass, he will, in theory, receive something like the same treatment as a character who arrives at the hospital by grossen Mercedes. (Lance Morrow, Time Magazine, August 1, 1977)

Before we naively swallow Mr. Morrow’s preposterous contention, “Certainly a principal purpose of human government must be to mitigate the unfairness that seems to be an integral part of human life,” we need to examine its pretext and consequences. Who has ever said that the purpose of human government is fairness? No one. The purpose of government is to provide an alternative to anarchy. We have a need to live orderly and peaceable lives. Government does that. How it does that is, of course, hopelessly complex. Libraries have been written on government and law, so it lies beyond the scope of this article. Still, the contention that government is to ensure fairness is fundamentally flawed. Fairness does not account for vast differences in people, personalities, abilities, resources, backgrounds, wealth, education, culture, strengths, weakness, talents, and on and on. Fairness does not govern the distribution of good looks, intelligence, or even, in many cases, opportunity. In fact, it is precisely when government tries to artificially force fairness that unfairness flourishes. One need go no further than to examine the quagmire of affirmative action initiatives to understand this, although enforced bussing, desegregation, animal rights and environmental protection laws could also be very instructive in the same vein. Moreover, how would we ever manage to apply uniformity or fairness across the board? We can’t. True fairness would require omniscience.

Philosophers have expounded on this theme forever. A blogging philosopher, Peter Prevos, makes this point: “The common sense point of view of fairness is a sense of equality. Our sense of fairness is cultivated at a very early age: I remember having fights with my sister over who should get the largest piece of cake and even using a measuring tape to support our point of view. Fairness as an absolute equality, such as in the cake problem, is a strange concept. If we apply this childish view of the world to adult problems, everybody would be paid exactly the same salary; would live in the same kind of house, wear the same clothes …” (Peter Prevos, The Horizon of Reason, 8-6-2007).

Yet, the expectation of fairness persists in human thinking. Most of us continue to mutter to ourselves, “I never get a break. Someone always beats me to the punch. What am I doing wrong? I don’t deserve this. Why isn’t this happening to other people? Why me?” We find it difficult to negotiate the reversals in life such as sickness, tragedy or loss. (Ironically, we never seem to experience too much philosophical angst over windfalls of good fortune!) We do anoint fairness as a right, whether overtly or secretly, and calibrate our psychological, emotional, financial and even physical adjustments to the vicissitudes of life. When something goes wrong, we have a right to be angry, bitter or vengeful. At least, we affirm our aggrieved feelings as right.

Reactions to a series of misfortunes vary between persons. Some assume that they are unworthy or inadequate. Others cross off their dreams and settle into a miserable existence without trying to analyze why. Some internalize their problems and develop serious or terminal physiological problems. Others make major changes in their personality, their philosophy of life or their ambitions. In worse case scenarios, those to whom life seems grossly unfair go postal, wreaking havoc in their homes or workplaces.

A prominent preacher in the UPCI, Brother Rex Johnson, lost his wife and son in a fiery auto crash a number of years ago. I attended the funeral service since I served with Rex on the General Youth Committee, and I remember well the intense sadness that hung over the congregation that day. Over twenty years passed before Rex was able to put his experiences of tragedy and recovery on paper. His book, With a Palm and A Willow, recounts the story in what he calls, “Reflections on a journey from grief to grace.” I was not prepared for the emotional impact the book had on me when I read it. After my tears dried and I re-read the book, I realized that Rex articulated, in his own way, the questions posed in this essay about the fairness of life. He wrote,

“Amid great suffering and monumental losses, Job asked God over 200 questions. The first night after losing Denise and Justin, it seemed like I asked God twice that many. Not only was I a decent person, but Denise was also the most honorable woman that a man could want for a wife. Justin was an angel walking on God’s earth. They were pure, right, clean, and respectful, possessing wonderful spirits. Denise was the kind of woman any man could cherish as a wife. Justin was the kind of boy any dad would be glad to claim as his son. Trying to digest being told I would never see my wife and son again wrung my heart and muddled my thoughts. Like fiery darts, thoughts pierced my soul and devastated my spirit. I kept thinking, “Things like this don’t happen to good people! This only happens to people who don’t trust God!”

Rex is a powerful preacher and one would be immensely blessed to buy the book and read it in its entirety. It is an anointed discourse on peace and comfort that God brings to a devastated soul.

In my observation, three major points of understanding emerge from our examination of fairness. First, the concept of fairness has at its root a human attempt to control God. Second, fairness does not exist in the economy of God. We are wrong to search for it, insist on it or impose it on ourselves or others. And third, our relationship to God is not based upon sameness, but uniqueness. Whenever we opt for a so-called fairness principle, we cheat ourselves out of a personal revelation of God that he has specifically designed for us alone.

I will elaborate on these in part two of this essay.

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Reader Comments (1)

We cannot (nor should we) attempt to guarantee "fairness", because life and nature demonstrate to us that we are not all born with identical characteristics or talents (indeed the parable of the talents shows this scripturally).

Seeking "fairness" is wrought with pitfalls as you aptly demonstrate, but the command to treat others with equal deference as your self is an explicitly Christ-ian one: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It is interesting that the only story Jesus ever tells explicitly about a particular soul in hell is about the rich man who clearly did not love the beggar at his gate with the same fervor as he did himself, but allowed him to languish in poverty and sickness while he had plenty. (Luke 16:19-31)

October 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Garcia

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