From the school yard to the workplace, there's no charge more damning than "You're being unfair!" Born out of democracy and raised in open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics--Lady Justice--wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale.
In this election season, politicians will be falling over themselves to assert their "fairness cred." And each side of the partisan debate will be using the word differently -conservatives will mean "meritocratic rewards" when they speak of fairness, and liberals will mean "equality."
But of course life isn't fair, no matter what your political lean, and we might be expecting too much from reality. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity.
Since social life isn't really fair, why go on pretending it is? Wouldn't we be better off with an ethics that acknowledges the stubborn facts of inequity, bias, and partiality? I think it would be wiser if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness--indeed, if we favored favoritism.
Moreover, the cosmos itself doesn't seem much interested in fairness. Nature, after all, is "red in tooth and claw" as Tennyson suggested and Darwin confirmed. Does the predator-prey rulebook seem fair? Wildebeest get to eat grass, for example, but practically everything else on the Serengeti (e.g., hyena, lion, cheetah, crocodile, leopard) get to eat them.
Not only is biology a grudging miser when it comes to adaptive powers (e.g., I'm slow, can't fly, and lack claws and fangs), but it also created a highly unfair sexual division of labor. My son was born, after his mother pushed heroically for 24 hours, while I (and most other men) went to the nearby ice machine to fetch her ice chips to chew on. By what stretch of the imagination does that look fair?
So, in hopes that we become more clear-eyed about reality, here are 9 ways that life is undeniably unfair (and notice that a couple of them are actually quite positive).
Stephen T. Asma is the author of Against Fairness [University of Chicago Press, $22.50].