Learning your place
Let’s start at the beginning. It kicks in at a particular developmental stage in childhood, when unfairnesses are felt more keenly possibly than ever again. This is largely down to the lack of control that you have over them as a kid, and probably also to the fact that you are, at that age, growing into yourself, developing your ego and learning how you compare to other people. That fairness is upheld is enormously important, and that the main answer you hear, ‘life isn’t fair’, is very frustrating – especially as it usually comes from the very people you rely on to uphold fairness on your behalf! It’s a rude awakening. This early experience of unfairness is an exploration of similarity and difference – identifying the similarity between yourself and others, and then winkling out the difference. Kids test it out in relation to parents (‘You’re not going to bed yet, why do I have to?’), but learn that different rules apply. They also apply differently to differently aged siblings (‘she’s got her ears pierced, when can I?’), or kids from families with different amounts of cash (‘so-and-so’s got much more toys than me’), and in this way we learn about hierarchies and privileges early on. Although life is apparently not fair, we are soon being told to play fair. Fair play, a level playing field, allowing everyone to compete from the same starting line: this is nominally very important when you get to school.
Nature and nurture … and opportunity
But it’s clear, often brutally so, that there’s no common baseline. Added to this is the less compassionate fairness that you have to throw yourself on. Teachers, as the new upholders of justice, are far from satisfactory, thanks to the anonymity of a big classroom. One person is talking so everyone gets detention – that sort of thing. My picture once got mounted upside-down and I didn’t win the prize. The injustice scars me now, twenty years on, but the teacher had thirty pictures to hang. Some kids are good at surviving at school, some aren’t. And the differences between people, when they seem important, often appear to be unfairnesses. I’m crap at team sports, for example, and I could blame my parents for not bringing me up to be brave or competitive, or I could blame the genes they gave me for, say, weediness or indecision (but there is a payoff of artiness, despite sabotage by stupid teachers who can’t see which way up a picture goes). So there’s no level playing field there, even though schools do strive to provide fairness of opportunity, making every kid go through the same sports lessons. Of course it’s not entirely to do with genes or character; it has everything to do with opportunity, from the very start. And that has to do with cash. Sure, the world is full of remarkable against-the-odds people, but having cash behind you does give you a step up, from granting access to forming character, to laying unshakable expectations of what you’re due, and worth.
Character building and fortune making
Think about your own circle of friends. There’s bound to be someone you know who seems lucky and avoids the mishap that by rights should be coming to them. There’s probably someone else who has had a bad time of it, some real unfair disadvantage, but survives admirably – you don’t know how you’d cope if it was you. There’s probably also someone who seems to subvert the idea of fairness and unfairness as life just bounces off them, and someone else who feels it so keenly that they look for comparison everywhere. We are made by our misfortunes in a way … and we also make them. ‘Do not compare yourself to others or you will become vain or bitter,’ says the Desiderata – everyone has something to overcome, and comparative studies for no reason other than self-pity or congratulation are no good to anyone. Meanwhile the drive to overcome adversity – unfairness – not to be dictated to by misfortune and not to relinquish control, sends people out to do remarkable things all the time – from amputees running marathons to grieving families setting up charities, and so on – remarkable achievements because of the circumstances, that are so often brought about by those circumstances. Every person experiences things differently – one person’s life-shaping experience is something that can be easily brushed off by another. While life isn’t fair, people aren’t blank slates either, and so unfairnesses fall upon differently farrowed folk.
Unfair or unjust?
I don’t think these terms are interchangeable. Unfair is far broader, which is why I’m finding it such a slippery idea. I’m going to hazard a distinction – that injustice brings with it a moral imperative and a call to action, while unfairness can, but doesn’t necessarily. Life would be better if there was no injustice, but it would be bland if there was no chance, and chance is the bedfellow of unfairness – the randomness and extraordinariness of human experience keeps it exciting and sometimes awful. A lot of what we’d call unfair is when this randomness looks vindictively unrandom – when the ideas of what people deserve or should expect comes in. My lucky boyfriend just came back from a rickshaw adventure in India and, despite being the only one to eat the meat dish one evening, avoided gastro- enteritis while the vegetarians all picked it up. Later he rolled the rickshaw, injuring everyone but himself. These two events were unfair – in as much as they were unlikely (the first) and just plain rude (the second). Both were ironic, and everyone knows we Brits love irony!
Identification of similarity
It doesn’t seem that we humans are alone in appreciating unfairness. A chap called Professor Frans de Waal ran experiments on monkeys, rewarding their efforts (like putting pebbles into his hand) with grapes and cucumber. The monkeys didn’t mind not getting much in return, but they did mind getting less than their monkey mates. If no one was getting the best prize – the grape – they were all right with that, even if they’d seen that it existed, but if another monkey got a better treat for the same effort, the monkey tried less hard or gave up altogether. The harder the task they were being asked to do, the less likely they were to accept the inequality of reward. This demonstrates an inequity aversion in monkeys, said Professor de Waal. It was important to the monkeys that they were getting the same reward for the same work as a creature they considered to be the same as them.
When you feel that something is unfair, it predetermines some sort of empathy of situation. Siblings, as mentioned, are where it begins – this is the closest and most similar relationship, in which unfairness is most keenly felt. If my boyfriend was Indian, his sick fellow travellers may have thought, ‘Well, he must have a stronger stomach’, and not held it against him. As it was, he had to do all of the driving while the others demanded toilet stops – not fair perhaps, but a sort of leveller. Life’s full of these too!
… and deliberate difference
We’re always on the lookout for these mitigating circumstances, the elements that make us not directly comparable. In personal relationships they can be a comfort, an explanation as to why people do or feel things differently: ‘He’s better than me at sports, but then he’s fearless/a man/had a really good sports teacher as a kid.’ In unequal relationships they can allow the suspension of empathy and therefore guilt-salving justifications for seeing the unfairness not as an injustice. Where you choose to cast your net of empathy and solidarity varies hugely. Most people’s reasoning for vegetarianism is feeling enough identification with animals not to want to see them treated unfairly, where unfairness is judged to be the difference between our life and theirs. Similarly many people are happy to eat fish, suggesting perhaps that fish don’t feel pain. Most sci-fi involves the solidarity stretching over the whole world, as all humans are more similar than the alien other! We like the feeling of this collective and the common cause (and just as well because our government and legal system rely on us getting the concept, but more on that later). Global systems of inequality are helped by our ability to make the net of empathy smaller. Take the patterns of global capitalism. Capitalism relies on unfairness – that there are people who will work for very little, allowing us a completely artificial idea of the value of goods and labour. Our physical distance from the production of most of our consumables helps us not to see the integral and unavoidable unfairness of the system. We feel different from them, they don’t quite exist for us, or worst of all they do but we figure that they might want or choose the situation. A breathtaking example of this was evident in The Big One, an early Michael Moore film on the outsourcing of industry from the USA to cheaper countries, when, despite high unemployment figures at home, co-founder and former CEO of Nike, Phil Knight, claimed that Americans did not want to make shoes, while there was nothing wrong with 14-year-olds working in his factories in Indonesia. In a double assault, at the same time that we are reassuring ourselves that the people at the bottom of the chain want to be there, the people at the bottom of the chain are being sold the utopian vision of life at the top of the chain, keeping people dissatisfied, wanting, and working. Local media, and advertising, is a window onto global inequality through the broadcast of the idea of the West, with its streets paved with gold. Recent investigations into the desperately dangerous economic migration across the Sahara, heading for Europe, showed that the people who embark on these crazy, life-threatening journeys are generally not the poorest of all, but the ones who have just enough social mobility to dream, and to come into contact with the images of what they’re missing out on. There’s now counter- advertising in some places, telling of how bad life is for the poor in rich countries.
How lawmaking needs identification
In law (essentially a system of upholding fairness) and government (the practice of taxation relies on the theory that some sort of fairness should be striven for) equality and justice must be defined. This is critical to bodies being able to act and legislate on behalf of other people – to make a functioning collective. Even a society based on hierarchy, apartheid and inequality still needs to define and justify it in terms of who is equal and who isn’t. While the creation of a collective requires fidelity to fairness, the pursuit of fairness also relies on believing in the philosophically difficult idea of collectivism. No one can know about anything but the individual for sure, so fairness and justice are based on uncertain ideas – guesswork about other people. The philosophy of Kant, especially his ‘categorical imperative’, has a great bearing on modern law. He defines a moral code of fairness with a kind of mathematical equation that can apply to all humans and doesn’t have to be mediated by empirical factors, and therefore writes the bones of a handbook to what the state can morally legislate for. His first rule says that anything based on a judgement – for example that murder is bad if you believe in the common good – requires that you do believe in the common good. Anyone who doesn’t believe in it needn’t adhere to the rule, and can murder at will. This sort of morality is a hypothetical imperative – it relies on one hypothetical situation in order to be true.
So Kant says that universal morality must be based on what he calls pure practical reason, which has nothing to do with the empirical mitigations, ifs or buts, of a particular case. A moral act, he says, is the right thing to do by any person under the same circumstance. He says, ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’. This means that you should only do something that everyone could do, without society becoming illogical, impossible or a complete mess. If everyone murdered people, society would end pretty quickly. Also, says Kant, if everyone lied language would lose meaning (well, or take on new meaning – everyone knows what ‘bijou’ means if it comes out of the mouth of an estate agent!), so lying is impermissible. If everyone could steal, property would lose meaning and therefore stealing would too. This is the categorical imperative. He has a softer version too, of things that, if universalised, wouldn’t cause society to crumble, just to be a bit crap. Laziness, for example.
Kant goes global
Kant identifies that no one can be used as a means to an end, because this couldn’t be universalised. He says a slave owner is denying the moral right of the slaves, denying their status as an end in themselves, and using them as a means. We might translate this onto global capitalism – our consumption cannot be universalised, our wealth is made possible by other people’s poverty, and global society could not survive everyone trying to live as we do. Kant’s code is all about negative rules – the things you can’t do, the curbing of your actions. Although the morals of the individual are weighed against this moderator of the functioning society, it is a society of individuals, each doing whatever they can for themselves. For a code based on not having to make assumptions, the one big underlying assumption is that all people are the same – in a very basic, rather cold, but at the same time unshakeable way. It takes fairness not to be anything other than everybody being able to do all of the same things as each other. This code suggests that we should be able to keep ourselves in check. Each person should act like they are in charge of the outcome of humanity – thinking before every little discrepancy or liberty ‘what would the world be like if everyone did this?’ ‘Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends,’ said Kant, suggesting that we do know what is right and wrong by what we would want to do, as long as no one else, or at least not everybody else, could.
Kant would say if you want to better yourself you need to want to better everyone else too. True competitiveness is to want to be better than other people, but you need them to have started with the same advantages as you – the same playing field. I always wonder what the steroid users feel about their prizes – do they not feel the hollowness of the achievement? And yet the only real problem with steroids is that not everyone is then starting from the same place, otherwise surely any performance enhancement would be unfair – energy drinks or a big bowl of pasta, or training. Dwayne Chambers, the banned athlete recently back in the news, admitted taking drugs, but suggested that everybody was, and only some get caught. The issue doesn’t seem so black and white when looked at this way – that he was not gaining an unfair advantage, but regaining a fair comparison. A race where all runners were on equal doses of steroids would once again level the field, back to the playground where it’s the genes or character that is being tested. Or, again, access. In many sports the Americans, with their sports scholarships, school clubs and serious funding, have the advantage. Only rules, constraints and legislation can step in, and do we want athletes to have to declare hours of training, measure their muscles, eat the same meals? Their ability to choose is also what is being tested.
So life isn’t fair
Uneven playing fields are a part of life. Perhaps it is how we palate that fact that is the crucial thing. We need legislation, a code and repercussions. We also, and this is the warmth that Kant deliberately misses, need to have some compassion and personal engagement behind wanting to stick to only doing things everyone could do – cold logic is too easy to forget or avoid. Religion, as it is with any difficult dilemma, is ready to step in. Most religions start from an abdication of responsibility at some level, to the presence of a higher power with a plan or logic. So when it comes to fairness religion often offers the suggestion that you deserve your lot, that it is what you’re given by God, whether as a challenge to live up to or as a punishment. This puts the wisdom in God’s hands, and takes fairness out of the question: it’s the divine plan instead. Not all religion is passive, and many great things are sparked by a religiously felt need to counter injustice – take the heartwarming Jubilee 2000 protests, for example, when a huge and international network of Christians took to the streets to make a stand against the injustice of Third World debt. At the other end of the scale is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to get involved with any sort of politics, as the state of the world is God’s doing, and not to be contradicted. Many a misery comes from refusal to let go of feeling bad about some unfairness – this is surely the root of most family feuds. There’s a certain peace in accepting your lot and the unfairnesses that go with it – everyone has some demon. But to accept every unfairness is just a lack of engagement with the world and responsibility for your corner of it. Is ambition about addressing unfairnesses? Refusing to accept what could otherwise be your lot? For many I’m sure it is, along with a whole host of other positive, progressive and remarkable traits and situations that stem from people being willing to not take an unfairness for an answer. It’s a galling state of affairs, to come to the end of such a missive and struggle to put my conclusion into words, before realising it’s already in words more eloquent than I could muster – the Serenity Prayer, written in 1934 by Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’