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Lawrence W. Gold

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November 29, 2013
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How do we decide what’s ‘fair?’

When my kids accused me of not being fair in dealing with their disagreements, I said, “Don’t use the word ‘fair.’ Use the word ‘equitable.’” Soon, however, equitable, repeated often enough, became as annoying as fair and took longer to utter.

Despite the choice of words, what we really needed to encourage and reinforce was the human sense of altruism now recognized as being demonstrably present in children as young as 18 months.

The parallels to our times are striking where politicos work in a “No Altruism Zone.”

In an article published in Psychology Today by Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., entitled, “It’s Not Fair! But What Is Fairness?” the professor takes on three different ideas of fairness: sameness, deservedness and need. Just as parents do for their children, Dobrin takes on the claims of fairness in clashes between philosophical opposites, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

He prefaces his discussion with: “Is it fair that all seniors, regardless of income, get senior discounts? Is it fair that a few spread out in first class while others sit cramped in economy seats? Is it fair that additional money be spent on specially designed playground equipment for a few handicapped children?”

He cites three differing ideas about what we mean by fairness that unerringly reflect the roots of our political philosophies:

1. Sameness: In the sameness explanation, everything is equal, that is, everyone pays the same for everything. Gone are senior discounts or reduced prices for children. In this system, everyone eats or no one eats, and the food is provided for all regardless of their need, and it doesn’t matter that one needs more than the other. Fairness here is finding the average and applying it across the board. Dobrin says that this is fairness as equality of outcome.

2. Deservedness: Means you get what you deserve. If you work hard, you succeed and keep all that you earn. Here, if you deserve nothing, you get nothing. The hardest working, most diligent, smartest and most talented should have more because of their attributes; the lazy, indifferent, stupid and inept get less because they deserve less. This, says Dobrin, is fairness as individual freedom (the Ayn Rand philosophy).

3. Need: In the echo chamber of politics, the progressive mantra holds that those who have more to give should give a greater percentage of what they have to help others. It’s in the eye of the beholder: Is this philosophical or pragmatic. Fairness here requires a trip through the complexities of cultural anthropology and the conclusion that humans have obligations to one another and to the common good. Fairness and responsibility are linked together, and compassion (a new concept) plays a role in determining fairness. This, says Dobrin, is fairness as social justice.

Here, I quote Dobrin directly: “The complexities and differences in definitions of fairness are revealed everyday in school systems. Should schools spend the same on every child, as implied by fairness No. 1? Or should the budget provide more money and resources for the brightest and most talented, as implied by fairness No. 2? Another option, one that increasingly dominates spending in education, is to allocate the greatest resources to children with the greatest needs (special education), as implied by fairness No. 3.

“So where should we spend public funds? Should schools be concerned with average children, children with the greatest potential or those with the greatest need? Arguments can be made for any one of the three approaches to education or for the distribution of any of society’s goods and services, each using a concept of fairness.”

None of these approaches, Dobrin feels, addresses all legitimate concerns, and society may have to pick and choose from these philosophies to find the right mix, but this requires rationality. Is the latter possible when, for some, philosophy has ascended to absolute truth … to ideology.

Here’s a test that defines an ideologue: Is there anything I can say, any fact that I can present or any expert you might consider that might change your mind? The answer “no” defines the ideologue.

Ideologues of any political stripe believe that only their notion of fairness is correct.

And it is that intransigence, that assuredness of ideologues that is responsible, in large part, for the polarization that paralyzes today’s politics in America. Ignorance and indifference are equally guilty.

Having the option, would we willingly choose an ideologue of any political philosophy as our leader?

Dr. Lawrence W. Gold lives in Grass Valley.


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The Union Updated Nov 29, 2013 11:18PM Published Nov 29, 2013 07:18PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.