Isn't Fair: What can we do about it?
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Disturbing and grotesque images of children
dying of starvation on the evening news seem surreal in our comfortable
living rooms. These tiny children look more like skeletons wrapped
in black skins. Too weak to move and too tired to protest, they
let the black flies feed on their listless faces. Their large bulging
eyes remind me of those of a dead fish. A deep groaning of despair
fills the air.
I can't even describe the feelings and thoughts
going through my mind. How could this be happening in the 21st century
- an age of unparalleled progress and prosperity? What lies ahead
for these children, even if they survive the famine? What have they
done to deserve such brutal fate?
Walking through Vancouver Downtown Eastside
(VDTE), I am also haunted by images of human misery. A homeless
young man staggers along like a decrepit old man. Born to a prostitute
in jail, introduced to hard drugs by his own mother at the age of
7, he has become a permanent fixture of the drug scene since childhood.
Having gone through the revolving door of drug rehab 5 times, he
is no longer welcome there. Is this young man condemned to a life
In one of the long alleys of VDTE littered
with garbage, a teenaged girl leaning against a huge dumpster injects
heroine into her skinny arm. Raped and abused by her alcoholic father,
she escapes to a life of prostitution and addiction. How could such
things happen in Vancouver, one of the best cities to live in the
world? Why are some people born into a cruel world with three strikes
Life isn't fair. It never was and it will never
be. Haven't we told our children umpteen times: "Who says that life
is fair?" They will soon learn that nothing is evenly distributed.
In fact, most things that really matter in this world are distributed
as a bell-shaped curve. Thus, there will always be people who are
disadvantaged as well as those who are privileged.
Down through the ages, people have wondered:
Why do the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer? Are we just
pawns in a hostile universe? Should we resign ourselves to the fact
that unfairness is an immutable condition of human existence? Should
we simply attribute injustice to bad luck, fate or karma? Should
we consult the stars and wait for the tide to change?
But something deep inside me shouts out: "No,
we cannot give in! No, we cannot let injustice prevail! " Justice
and fairness are worth fighting for, because these ideals are essential
for human survival and for making life worth living. They are the
cornerstones of Western civilization, the foundation for democracy,
and essential ingredients of morality and ethics. We can all be
better human beings, if we can truly embrace these ideals.
What is the meaning of fairness?
Justice and fairness are closely related concepts.
The former generally refers to compliance with some standards of
rightness, while fairness refers to judgments that are free from
biases. Central to both concepts is that each person should receive
what they deserve.
But how do we determine what each one deserves?
What criteria should we use? Let us consider the simple situation
of dividing a cake for10 people: A single mother with 4 young children,
a married couple with three teenaged boys. What would be the fairest
way to cut the cake? Should it be 10 pieces of equal proportions
or different slices according to age or appetite?
Whichever criterion we use to cut the cake,
there will always be grounds for complaint of unfairness. Every
parent knows that no matter how hard they try to treat their children
equally, some will always complain: "But it just isn't fair!"
We cannot complain about our own lives, simply
because others seem to fare better. It is essential that we do not
confuse squabble over petty envy with waging wars against social
Competition and mimetic rivalry
The scarcity of goods and services is clearly
one of the root causes of unfairness. It is very difficult to agree
on what is the fairest way to distribute limited resources. The
problem of unfairness is further compounded by competition and envy.
Somehow, we often desire exactly what others have. Have you seen
two children fighting over the same toy when there are so many other
toys available? When one child picks up a particular toy, the other
child right away finds it most desirable.
Adults often behave in a similar fashion. If
we cannot obtain the same thing, we feel that the world is not fair.
Such conflict is rooted in mimetic rivalry, according to French
philosopher Rene Girard (1986). The desire to imitate others in
order to get what they have is often unconscious, but it may have
a pervasive and powerful impact on our behaviours. For example,
we may gang up and scapegoat someone, when we cannot get what we
want. We may even resort to violence or terrorism, when we come
out as losers in mimetic
Mimetic rivalry can only be overcome by a spirit
of generosity and grace - a totally different approach to problems
surrounding fairness. According to this new calculus, fairness means
how to maximize what is good to most people, even when it means
personal disadvantages. Now consider the following two parables.
Grace versus justice
At the end of the day, those who started working
at 6 am were paid exactly the same amount as those who were hired
at the eleventh hour. You can almost hear that complaints of unfair
treatment grew from grumbling to a loud protest: "You have not been
fair. We have worked all day long and some of the workers have only
worked an hour, but you have paid us exactly the same." The owner
replied: "Look, I have done nothing unjust. You and I agreed at
6:00 a.m. this morning that I would pay you a denarius for a day's
work, and I have lived up to my end of the bargain. Do I have the
right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because
I am generous?" (Matthew 20: 1-15).
If the workers had a social conscience, they
should rejoice that their fellow workers got the full day's pay,
even though they got hired late. After all, they all needed the
money to feed their families.
This parable from Jesus also tells us the difference
between justice and grace. Justice demands that all be treated equally
and everyone receives what one deserves. Grace dictates that the
Dispenser of gifts is free to give to us what we do not deserve
and what cannot possibly be earned. Grace is never fair, because
it is no longer grace, when it is regulated by fairness.
Generosity versus equality
Here is an old rabbinic parable as retold by
John Claypool , which reinforces the above point.
Once upon a time, there was a farmer with two
sons. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores
of the farm. When the father died, they had enjoyed working together
so much that they decided to continue their partnership rather than
dividing up the estate. So each brother contributed what he could,
they would divide equally the fruits of their labor.
Over the years the elder brother stayed an old
bachelor, while the younger brother got married and had eight wonderful
children. Now that the situation has changed considerably, what
would be the fair way to share the profit? Should they renegotiate
a different arrangement other than the 50-50 split?
The old bachelor brother thought to himself
one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one.
He really needs more of this harvest than I do, but I know he is
much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of
the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have
put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed
At the very time he was thinking down that line,
the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these
wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really
needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know
him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll
do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of
what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so
one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated,
those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity.
The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud
in the sky, but a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was?
God was weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the
point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is
the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in
God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well.
Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in
Moral judgment of unfairness
Strictly speaking, fairness is not about getting
what I deserve but about doing
what is right. Fairness or the lack of it should be a moral
judgment based on such objective criteria as following the established
standards and due processes, and being free from discrimination,
bias or deception. Unfair practices can have serious consequences
- innocent people do get hurt and often get killed.
Genocide, slavery, segregation and apartheid
are all examples of systemic discrimination. Any kind of discrimination
based on group membership, socio-economic class, power differential
or some arbitrary characteristics cannot be tolerated, because it
deprives many individuals of their life opportunities. Regional
disparities, the widening gap between the developed and developing
countries also contradict the ideal of fairness and justice. The
world cannot be a happy or safe place, when so many are dying of
starvation through no fault of their own.
At the personal level, it maybe more difficult
to distinguish between unfair treatment and the personal feeling
of being not accepted for whatever reasons; still the feeling can
be very real and painful. Consider the following scenarios:
- The big boss appoints his incompetent and
corrupt relative to be your immediate boss, who claims credits
for all your achievements but blames you for all the problems.
- The inner circle of your organization only
consists of those who have passed the President's loyalty test
- they are perfectly willing to lie and destroy others at the
President's command. You are forever kept out of the decision
making process, simply because you believe that blind obedience
is unethical and unprofessional.
- You are the outsider looking in. You are
never told the reason for being excluded, but you know that there
is a set of implicit codes only known to the insiders.
- You fall through the crack because people
cannot easily pigeonhole you and therefore do not feel safe to
include you in their groups.
- You are the scapegoat in the company, because
you are the only minority, therefore, an easy and safe target
in times of difficulty.
How should we react in the above situations?
A victim's mentality would only make us more vulnerable to abuse.
An outsider's syndrome may motivate us to work harder to gain acceptance.
But a still better approach is to consider the larger social implications
of organizational injustice. What is personal is also universal.
We need to ask: Is it a violation of human rights? Is it a case
of abuse of power?
Unless we grasp the full significance of fairness
in all human affairs, we may continue to pass indifference as tolerance.
The struggle for social justice requires us to have some understanding
of the basic principles of justice.
Principles of Justice
the most fundamental principle of justice is declared by Aristotle:
"equals should be treated equally and
unequals unequally." It means equal work and equal pay regardless
of gender or race. It also means the first in line gets served first
regardless of one social-economic status. We now take these practices
for granted, but let's not forget that not too long ago many had
paid a heavy price to achieve social justice for women, minorities
and the poor underclass.
The utopia of a just society will always elude
us, but we can always make life fairer for more people. Let's begin
with distributive justice, which refers to fair distribution of
benefits and burdens. The winner-take-all economy of global competition
has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots. God forbids
that we should become indifferent to the plights of millions of
children dying of starvation, AIDS and other infectious diseases.
refers to meting out punishment that fits the crime. However, we
often fall short of the ideal embodied in the Statue of Lady Justice.
She wears a blindfold and left hand holds forth a balance scale,
signifying the imperative of fairness and equal justice for all
before the law. Her right hand holds a sword to remind people that
the law will be enforced. But injustice still exists in our legal
systems. How many innocent people are languishing in prisons, while
crime lords are still free to enjoy their ill-gotten gains?
John Rawls (1921-2002) has argued that social
stability or unity exists to the extent that members of that society
or organization feel that they are being treated fairly. He has
articulated his theory of justice as
fairness in his 1971 classic A Theory of Justice. In this
book, Rawls sets forth the proposition that "Each person possesses
an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society
as a whole cannot override. Therefore, in a just society the rights
secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to
the calculus of social interests."
More recently, Angus Reid (1996) emphasizes
the imperative of fairness in surviving and thriving in the new
Fairness is a fundamental ingredient in
the cement of social capital that provides a country with a chance
to survive and even succeed in the new era. Without fairness,
civility becomes compromised and trust erodes (p.285-286)
What can we do about unfairness?
How can we make the world fairer? How can we
make life fairer for those who have been abused, oppressed, but
are unable to protect themselves? How do we react to all those violations
of our beliefs in a just world?
Just world belief
Lerner (1980) has pointed out that our belief
in a just world stems from our needs to predict and control our
environment. Therefore, when we witness random violence or incidences
of abuse, we tend to blame the victims in order to maintain a sense
of personal security - they deserve it because they must have done
something bad in the past, or because they are being careless. This
kind of distorted reasoning becomes even stronger, when the victims
resemble us in some way.
However, such unconscious defense mechanism
is counter-productive in the long run. What happens to others may
one day happen to us, if nothing is being done. A more rational
and effective way to maintain our sense of control and security
is to actively participate in anti-violence and anti-abuse measures.
The best way to maintain our belief in a just world is to champion
the cause of social justice and make the world fairer.
The outsider syndrome
Ostracism takes place in every domain of life
even in a free and democratic society. When people are repeatedly
excluded because of personal characteristics or group membership,
they may develop an outsider syndrome. I know it in a deep and personal
way. Well, this is not the place to tell my life story as a perpetual
outsider. All I can say is that eventually I have come to the conclusion
that if people want to ignore and exclude you, there is nothing
you can do about it. You can make overtures, you can plead with
them to let you in, but the result is always the same - they simply
ignore your presence and refuse to recognize your existence. It
The positive side of the outsider syndrome is
that one may develop a greater capacity of empathy and a keener
sense of social justice towards the outsiders. That is how I have
acquired the reputation of being a "justice fighter" - always fighting
for the underdogs and the oppressed.
According to my calculation, there must be more
outsiders than insiders, because the insiders tend to be small clubs,
who want to keep all the privileges and benefits to themselves by
ostracizing the rest of the world. Therefore, if all the outsiders
can get united, they can do so much for each other and for humanity.
Finally, I have learned that when people do
not want to include you, you can always create your own game. That
is how the International Network on Personal Meaning was created
a few years ago, with a vision of being a big tent, welcoming everyone
interested in learning how to live a meaningful life.
Make small contributions on a daily basis
Francis Bacon said: "God shows himself best
in his smallest things." We may not have the power to change the
world, but we can always make a difference in our little corner.
It must begin with us, for fairness is a matter of the heart. We
need to cultivate compassion daily, so that we will respond to others
compassionately. If we can treat everyone with dignity and show
kindness in all our interactions, we may help revive someone's hope
in humanity and faith in God.
There is so much we can do and so many opportunities
for involvement. Participate in humanitarian efforts, such as the
fair-trade movement and the anti-poverty movement. Volunteer in
community services like the Salvation Army. Be an activist. We don't
need to be superheroes to fight injustice.
You are not alone. I am not alone. Together,
our mighty voice can buoy the spirit of all the oppressed. Together,
we can make life fairer for someone, somewhere, someday. Rise and
shine in all corners of the earth, like the generous sunshine. There
is no better way to make life meaningful for all. This is what life
is all about.
Girard, R. (1986). The
Scapegoat. Translated by Y. Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns
Hopkins University Press.
Rawls, J. (1999). A
theory of justice (Revised Ed.) Cambridge, MA: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press.
Reid, A. (1996). Shakedown:
How the new economy is changing our lives. Toronto: Doubleday