In Search of Fairness

In our business dealings, in our consideration of the feelings of others — in nearly every transaction between civilized people — we seek to balance our selfish impulses with the nebulous notion of what’s “right.” Thanks to parents and religion and laws, we have a strong idea of what constitutes fairness, and our ability to behave properly (fairly) is often the strongest measure of our personal goodness.

On the other hand, we’re constantly reminded that life is not fair. We witness grotesque disparities in standards of living; we see worthy folks punished by unseen forces, and scurrilous ones rewarded; almost daily we observe the cruel randomness of being alive. Our existence is essentially unfair. If life were a playing field — and many people do indeed see life as an elaborate game — then it surely isn’t a level one.

Why then do we constantly strive to inject fairness into all our interactions? We seem to know intuitively that it’s the decent and moral thing to do. But, based on centuries of evidence, it’s not the natural thing. Free-marketeering capitalists stress that their system works best because it’s fueled by the human race’s selfish impulses. Only because of rabid self-interest and the will to profit at the expense of others does capitalism function smoothly. An artificial construct like fairness gives the appearance of equality and sportsmanship, but, practically, it adds nothing to our transactions except a small obviation of guilt.

Nature is not fair. Cancer is not fair. Love is not fair. Democracy is not fair. Totalitarianism is not fair. We go on trying mightily to convince ourselves that acting fairly is correct, because that’s how the world ought to be. It’s a noble and beautiful illusion.

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