If justice is the end, then a universal definition without the space to love some more than others is not the answer, says Professor Stephen T. Asma.

"A Chinese politician attempted to impress Confucius with an anecdote of local virtue,” says Stephen T. Asma, “The politician told him that the people of his province were so morally virtuous that if a father steals a sheep, the son would give evidence against him. Confucius replied, ‘Our people’s virtue is not like that. The father shields the son, the son shields the father. There is virtue in this…we know it in our bones’,” says Asma, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia College, Chicago, juxtaposing the ideas of fairness and justice. He has written a book titled “Against Fairness” and argues that it is generally the one who has been injured by it who complains about fairness and unfairness and that fairness is an illusion that can be detrimental to us as a society.

“I am against fairness but for justice. Fairness is an anaemic ethical concept which emerged during the Enlightenment when we were trying to put ethics on the same footing as the sciences…we wanted something like a Universal law that applied to everybody…then it got perfected during the era of Utilitarianism,” says Asma. He says ethics got so closely tied to ideas of fairness that many other closely related ideas of justice that better navigate the ethical world were not even looked at. It is in this context that the conversation between the politician and priest was quoted.

“Most of us live in a world of exceptions not universal laws and many of us are very strongly bonded to our family, to our kith and kin and this creates a preferential bias. How do these biases fit in with the utilitarian ideas of fairness?” asks Asma, saying, most of us, especially kids, have exclaimed at one time or other, “This is not fair!” Psychologists may say there is a kind of emotional engine like envy or jealousy that is behind this outrage. Institutions like schools have to go in for some measures that ensure uniformity, like all children who participate in a race get a medal or for Valentines, all boys are to get valentines for all girls. If children were to be selective, then educators feel the ones who did not get a valentine would suffer from a crush of their self-esteem. “I understand this but I think it is not good for children to pretend the world is utterly fair. I also think it is good for the character of children to understand that they are not good in certain things while there are some others who are better. Character develops from failure.”

Favouritism gives an evolutionary advantage. One example of that is how mothers favour their own children above all else. Even great leaders, including the Buddha had favourites; his disciple Ananda.

“It is difficult to express an idea of moral privilege when almost all of our ethical education has been against it. From children’s stories to religious parables to technical philosophies we are encouraged to eliminate our personal connections from considerations of justice and virtue. The idea of fairness that many of us are raised on requires us to assign all parties equal weight. But it is human to prefer, and love is discriminatory…”

Asma says, “There is a famous quote of Gandhi who says that in order to love everybody fairly and equally you cannot love any particular person too much because that would interfere and create bias. So I can imagine if anybody took that to heart, they would feel unhappy if they could not live up to it. The recent spate of happiness studies speak with one voice in saying that the main ingredient is strong social bond and strong social bonds are difficult to sustain in a strongly fairness oriented society…”

Asma’s ideas can have far reaching consequence…for example many think of long paid maternity leave as unfair.

But Asma says that would mean a happier and more balanced future generation with lesser crimes and depression patients. So maybe we should rework our ideas of fairness.

Web link