Back to Opinion Back to Home
Fairness and Right
    We depend upon the universe to obey certain physical laws, be governed by certain physical absolutes, and to have a certain consistency to it. We thus expect electricity to act in a certain manner as it flows through our computers, light bulbs, television sets, and stereos. We expect certain behaviors in gasoline when we burn it in our cars, and expect certain mechanical laws to govern what it does to the cylinders, and gears of our engines and transmissions. Even in cases where these laws might not seem to benefit us, as when they prevent us from, being able to walk off of a cliff and look down at the ground without falling , or make the groceries weight a bit more than we care for as we are going up the stairs, we have no argument with them. Indeed, we would be confused, dismayed, and frightened if these laws could not be depended upon. We accept them for what they are, and understand that, though they may inconvenience us at times, the universe would not work properly if they were not in place and did not work consistently. We go to great lengths, training scientists and engineers, to explore and learn these laws more completely so that we can better work within their framework.
    When it comes to moral absolutes however, we seem to feel a bit differently. Perhaps we feel that we are not part of the universe at all, and subject to no absolutes. Perhaps we feel that, unlike mindless atoms, or dumb electrons, we are too smart to be hemmed in by anything like absolutes. Still, we need something to satisfy our love of order, and those who seek power need something by which to rule. It seems that both sides have found it, in the concept of fairness. It should be noted that, though there are absolutes in the nature of the universe, there is nothing like the concept of fairness. Everything is constrained by the nature of what it is, and by the physical laws ruling it's behavior. Period; no argument, no appeal! Protons do not seek to become electrons, even though fairness would dictate that they have a right to be whatever they want. Matter does not arbitrarily decide not to be subject to the forces of gravity, because neutrinos are not subject to it, making it unfair. Such application of fairness as a replacement for physical attributes would be disastrous. This example reveals fairness for the contrived artifice that it is. There is no absolute basis for fairness; it exists only in the minds of men, where it is easily manipulated. Without it's physical absolutes, the universe could not exist. It may be that without moral absolutes we can not exist as a free, civilized people. By abandoning moral absolutes, and replacing them with ideas of fairness, we may be setting ourselves up for a collapse of civilization, as certain as the collapse of the universe if physical absolutes were to suddenly cease in their influence.
    To most of us, the terms fairness, and right tend to be synonymous. Strictly speaking, this is not true. Though they can often be used in a similar fashion, they are different words designed to convey different meanings. Both convey a sense of being in pursuit of "good", though this, too, is often vaguely defined; what is good for me might not be the same as what is good for you, and the phrase "This is for your own good" has become synonymous with unpleasantness. Misuse of words aside, in an ideal world, or in an ideal situation, fair, right, and good can generally be thought of as the same thing. Matters are seldom ideal, however, and the real world can be a bit more complicated. Fairness is a valid and desirable goal in contests, sporting events, and other competitions. Fairness simply conveys the idea of equality and balance; it does not acknowledge the concepts of good and bad. It is not always an ideal ultimate goal to pursue.
    What is fair may not always be what is right. This may fly in the face of much of what was drummed into us as children, but it is necessary to teach children a simple, defensible, and enforceable code of conduct. This is particularly true in the public schools, where more importance is placed on managing children than on teaching them, or training their conscience. Actually, considering what has taken charge of our schools these days, this is probably a good thing. Adulthood presumes a certain deeper understanding, wisdom, and judgment, a sense of right and wrong which can not be ascribed to children. Children do as they are directed, getting away with what they can. Mature, reasoning adults, with a moral sense, do what is right. One of the great problems in society is that the world is getting to be filled with grownup clever children, rather than reasoning adults.
    So it seems as if morally, many of us have not grown up, and possibly never will. This is a manifestation of the times we are living in. The times that I am referring to are a product of the strange set of social standards we are drafting (or having drafted) for ourselves in which fair has become far more important than right. Indeed, right seems to have almost completely disappeared from the way we go about our daily business. Why might we want this?
    People today, for whatever reason, are skeptical, do not care to show trust or to take things on faith, and do not like to see themselves under the limitations of moral absolutes. Fairness allows us morally to operate within an argumentative framework, in which right and wrong become variables. Moral absolutes permit nothing like this; they are constant and unyielding. Fairness can be quantified, in a way that right never can be. It is even possible to replace right with a sort of a balancing of the load, where fairness turns right into an arbitrary thing. Arbitrary morals, and arbitrary standards of right and wrong, are not standards at all. Indeed, with arbitrary definitions, there is no right, or wrong, only a sort of an equally balanced equation, whereby wrong is allowed, as long as we are all permitted an equal amount of wrong. What is right or wrong is up to the individual, as long as things are kept "fair". Of course, fair can have some pretty arbitrary definitions too, particularly where political considerations are involved.
        Fair is more important than right, to those who have been taught no moral sense. It is the great shortcut for those who are strangers to moral absolutes, and who have been discouraged from using their own judgment (even the word judgmental has taken on a negative connotation). This is one of those odd, unintentional (or so I hope) consequences of too much introspection and social consciousness in the sixties and seventies. Fair is the ideal hand maiden of moral relativism. Fair and it's partner "equal" have a mathematical symmetry to them, which is much admired by the bureaucrat and the academic alike. Fair is also easy to calculate, once you have learned the trick, in contrast to right, which is weighed down with all of that moral, judgmental, and standards stuff. Because of this, fair can be redefined, and recalculated in a way that a moral absolute, like right, never can be.
    From a strictly mathematical point of view, it can be said that if good is not balanced on both sides, something good for one side must be balanced out by removing something good from the other. By such a definition then, there can be no absolute good, only a kind of swapping around of good and bad. This is one of the great fallacies of the cult of fairness. It is the reason that most of the progressive government policies set up in the name of fairness are coercive. It also explains the mindset behind quota systems, and confiscatory wealth redistribution social programs.
     Things can not be considered to be fair if any undue recognition is given to the individual, thus fairness is a collective quality. Indeed, being a comparative quality, fair can not exist for the individual, but only has relevance when being applied to members of a group. This makes it very attractive to the socialist, central planner, and for those who have little respect for people as individuals. Fairness, and those who worship it, are procedure oriented, because a procedure can be quantified, and does not require judgment. Procedures can be made fair under all circumstances by keeping them consistent, without reference to circumstance. Making them right under all circumstances is probably not possible. Right is always an elusive thing, whereas fair can be defined almost at will, and broken down to a point where almost anyone can be made to understand it. Fair allows us to have order, and a form of justice, without invoking moral absolutes.
     Actually, this sort of answers a number of questions/complaints, about much of the well meaning (and not so well meaning) foolishness going on these days. There are a number of people who are just plain bad, and who do bad things for bad reasons, but they are a small minority. Most of the day to day silliness that goes on is due to people who do not know, or do not care to know, the difference between right and wrong, and their numbers are on the increase. These people have been taught that there is no objective standard for right and wrong, and that judgment is a bad thing. They have been taught to replace right with fair, which is to say, they have been taught to replace judgment with procedure.
     The real danger of using fair instead of right, is that fair is always subject to change, and to being redefined in a way that right never can be. A good example of this concerns the race problems that have plagued this nation for so long and that continue, in a more subtle form, to do so today. Had we defined racism as being immoral, and wrong (which some have), there may have been some chance of ending it. Instead, we concentrated on how unfair it is to judge a man by color or by race. Now this seems good enough in principle, but is actually a moral shortcut, which led to all sorts of mischief latter on, and is responsible for many of the racial problems we are enduring today. Even when believing in something like an absolute, the moral relativists can't quite bring themselves to invoke it.
     The reason that much of our racial policy (among others) is based upon fairness, rather than right, is that standards of right and wrong are so difficult to argue for, without having to resort to absolutes. Resorting to an absolute is abhorrent to the social progressives, nearly all of whom are moral relativists. Thus, instead of saying that it is wrong to give black children a poor education, we said it was unfair to give them an education inferior to that of white children. Most of us are familiar with what has happened to the schools since then. I suspect that most black children in the horrible racist fifties, and sixties got a far better education than most do in our current enlightened times. What has changed is that public education has become equally dismal for blacks and whites both. This is terrible and wrong, but at least it's fair by the definitions of fairness that those in favor of revamping the schools sought to invoke. Actually, by this standard, there was nothing much wrong with slavery itself, except that there were no white slaves. Solving the slavery issue in the way that the school issue was solved, would simply mean legalizing the ownership of white slaves. This would have been perfectly fair. Which brings me to the next point.
     If a moral standard tells us that certain acts are wrong, then moral behavior requires that we must stop these acts. If a fairness standard tells us that certain acts are unfair, we must first define the way in which they are unfair, then we must balance the equation. In the case of fair, two wrongs are able to balance each other out, and really do make a right. It might also be noted that, in the case of fair, the wrong act need not be discontinued, as long as it is balanced out, or applied consistently. Thus an airport screener harassing an innocent passenger at an airport is not wrong as long as other passengers are also harassed. Furthermore, it becomes unfair not to harass all of the passengers if a single passenger is subject to harassment. Such a mindset also results in the destructive affirmative action programs, and the silliness of zero tolerance. This kind of thinking(?) is what we have used to replace reason, judgment, and the moral code by which we once lived.
    Thus, if you knock an old lady to the ground, and break her hip because she slipped through the screening area, you are not held accountable if you were following procedure. This is true, even if she is found to have no suspect items on her person. On the other hand, if you allow the old lady through, doing no harm to anyone, you are in big trouble because you violated procedure. You were not fair to the people who had to be searched. This is why I am aware of at least one incident in which the pilot was detained, because some disallowed item (in one case, a small folding knife) was found. No one really thought that the pilot was going to put a knife to his own throat, and hijack his own plane, but fair is fair.
     This mindset is not limited to government workers, or even to people of marginal intelligence. Many talented, and bright people operate under the same constraint of moral judgment. It has nothing to do with low intelligence, though low intelligence certainly does make it more palatable. Lawyers are notorious for showing no concern over the guilt or innocence of their clients; they are not concerned with right. A lawyer interested in right would refuse to defend a man that he knows to be guilty, while one only interested in fair, would have no such concerns, only noting that it would be "unfair" not to defend him. This is not because the lawyer is unable to understand moral absolutes (though I sometimes wonder) but rather that he prefers to put what is fair above what is right. Part of the reason for this is that fair is just plain easy, compared to right. In order to establish right, a serious look would have to be taken and some hard decisions made. In order to calculate fair, one need only say that everyone should be treated equally. Though people have many criticisms of lawyers, low intelligence is not one of them. Lawyers have also done a considerable amount of damage to our concept ot what is fair, and what is right. Justice has been turned into a sort of a game, a logical exercise in which victory goes to he who can outmaneuver his opponent; right and wrong bear little consideration. Fair, being somewhat of a variable, is also easy to maneuver and manipulate. This type of thing twists the nature of law, transforming it into a tool with which justice is continually redefined to suit the needs of the moment, the client, or the lawyer.
    Right now, there is a real battle going on between those believing in moral absolutes, and those who follow moral relativism. Both seek to mold the culture. Liberals, as moral relativists, tend to be concerned, obsessed really, by what is measurably fair. Conservatives seek to have standards of what is right. Both sides, at their best claim to seek freedom, at their worst, both sides seek to impose order. This may be part of the problem that many leftists have with religion, and may explain why conservatives place a higher value on it. God has no arbitrary definitions of what is right. He is quite exact, and explicit on what his standards are (yes, he has standards too). The Bible also shows a slightly different take on what is fair, than the one which most liberals have. In most religions, it is up to the individual to measure up, and to make peace with God. So religion is based upon a number of moral absolutes, and upon a certain premise of individuality, and of individual responsibility.
    The religion of the moral relativists can be summed up by one of their favorite phrases: "There is no right or wrong, merely different interpretations of right." This sounds very noble, forgiving , and profound, but in reality is advocating an abandonment of morals and of moral standards. There is a kind of self satisfied smugness inherent in statements such as this. The moral relativists are declaring their superiority over the rest of us here. They are not constrained by the moral absolutes that guide the rest of us; they see themselves as having risen above such things. Well, in actuality they have done no such thing. Rather than rising above, they have sunk below such things as moral absolutes, blinding themselves to the difference between right and wrong. Many have taken things so far as to equate morals with repression. A strict interpretation of this yields the conclusion that Hitler was not wrong; he merely had a different interpretation of right. The same can then be said of Stalin, Castro, Sadaan Hussein, Bill Clinton, crooked politicians, dishonest businessmen, and unscrupulous bureaucrats. It can also, by extension, be claimed to apply to petty criminals, muggers, burglars, even murderers. It can be claimed, sometimes truthfully, that all have their own codes to which they are loyal.
    Moral authority is higher than government authority, if one believes in moral absolutes; on the other hand, Government authority is higher than moral authority, if one does not. How can I say this? Humans are a rather social, orderly bunch; we do not, as a whole, really care for anarchy. Once moral absolutes are done away with, we still need some code by which to live, maintain order, and get along with each other. Unfortunately, in the absence of allegiance to moral absolutes, and to religion, the only guide that people can turn to is the government. This is unfortunate because according to Jefferson, government is, like fire, "a dangerous servant, and a fearful master." It is certainly no coincidence that in many despotic regimes, one of the first things to go is the idea of moral absolutes (interestingly, this is quickly followed by religion, and the family; two other influences to possibly rival that of the government).
    In a society that does not believe in moral absolutes, the main instrument of fairness is the bureaucracy. Since a bureaucracy, by it's nature, does not have policy making powers, it's power comes entirely from enforcing policy handed down from above. This pretty well explains the "Rules are Rules" attitude that bureaucracy universally shows. Why does the mindlessness of bureaucracy drive us all nuts? Mainly because it outrages our inborn moral sense, as dormant as it often is these days. A bureaucratic mind does not look too deeply into what it busies it's hands with. You will never be able to reason with people who think this way, on the basis of right and wrong. Though you may be able to convince them that they are wrong, this will be no victory. They will not understand the relevance of being wrong, when they are able to say that they are being fair. If you need to invoke the doctrine of fairness to defend some act, then the act is almost certainly wrong. This is a beloved defense of the lazy, bureaucratic, or small mind. It is also a great way to shore up an argument which is morally indefensible.
    You can not have both freedom, and equality. This statement is so insightful, and obvious, that it is shocking to me that so few people seem to understand or believe this. It is this basic truth which makes our current obsession with whatever the definition of fairness is these days, so frightening. Those who set themselves up as the untiring advocates of fairness are the natural enemies of freedom. People can easily be brow beaten into supporting the removal of their rights, and into giving up control of their lives by convincing them that these things need be done in the name of fairness. Any who would oppose such measures are immediately consigned to the moral low ground, categorized as selfish, or worse. As a means to get your political way, "fair" is easily as good an all purpose argument as "for the children".
     In the short term, what all of this adds up to is a baggage checker who insists on frisking the old lady, strip searching an old man, not allowing a veteran on a plane with a medal, and not allowing Marines in uniform to have their service weapons. In the long term, I shudder to think, but I foresee a world in which form and structure become more important that function and purpose. Really, in too many ways, we are already in that world.. The underachievers searching passengers at the airport were certainly wrong to give so much attention to these people, but they were fair. For the bureaucratic, procedure oriented mind of the average airport screener, this is all that matters. Most do not truly see their jobs as insuring safer air travel (for many passengers, the biggest danger seems to be the airport screeners), rather, they see their function as insuring all passengers are checked in a fair manner, and given equal consideration. Whether or not this does any good, is not their concern; their only job is to search passengers according to procedure and strict guidelines of fairness (just following orders sir; everyone has to go through it).
    While I have no wish to die before my time (that would be unfair), I am not looking forward to living long enough to see the progress of the next 25-40 years (my probable lifespan), and the brave new world that the forces of political correctness are engineering for us. I think that certain things, like the airport security charade, the DMCA, and the various other encroachments upon the individual by the hive, are indicators of what the future might have in store for us. I can not see a culture surviving after being remade in such an image.