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The Fallacy of Fairness

September 23, 2015


 I was raised on the concept of “fairness,” but lately I’ve wondered if fairness is a notion that should be lumped together with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. I suppose this makes me either a cynic, or a realist. The world is not a fair place, never has been and never will be, so why do we raise our children as if fairness is fundamental to existence?


I doubt it’s possible to love children equally, but parents push the concept in order to limit sibling conflicts and avoid household friction. Today we understand the pitfalls of raising girls to think of themselves as little princesses waiting for Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet, whisk them off to a rosy future, but what about fairy tales like fairness?


Fairness doesn’t exist in nature, and human beings, much as we try to overlook the fact, are bound by the Nature that created us. Is it fair that a spawning salmon swims thousands of miles to reach the riverbed where it hatched only to leap that last cascade into the jaws of a waiting bear? Is it fair that the last hatchling in a nest is usually starved or pushed to its death, or that from a hundred baby turtles dashing to the surf, only one will reach maturity? These events happen without any consideration for fairness.


As Americans, we believe our identity to be codified in words like: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Notice that nothing is said about people actually being equal. The founding fathers were brilliant and knew that all men were not created equal, but they realized that to build a harmonious society, the notion of fairness was necessary to lubricate society and minimize frictions that would inevitably arise when reality kicked in, realities like the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.


I’m beginning to wonder if the idea of fairness should be avoided when raising children. Is it good to tell kids they’re all winners, that effort is the only thing that matters, not achievement? Should our children believe that life owes them “fairness?”


I was born into a country where food, education and opportunities abound. I’ve never had parents torn from me at gunpoint. No one in my family was ever raped by warlords and no bombs ever dropped on me or anyone I love. I was born in the right place at the right time, and I did nothing to deserve it.


When I turn on my TV, I see people waving the Stars and Stripes and demanding walls be built and people deported, and I wonder how my fellow citizens can be so callous as to believe they deserve to be here more than anyone else, as if they are somehow special. Merit had nothing to do with most of us becoming Americans. In fact, an argument can be made that those risking perilous hardships to get here are more worthy of becoming Americans than those of us fortunate enough to be born in a clean hospital with the American flag flying beside the front door.





There was a time when I fretted that my country was under attack by floods of unwanted immigrants, that the American way of life I cherished was on its way out as the complexion of my country moved further away from white, but the time came when I had to ask myself a serious question: What if I were born on the wrong side of a border? What if I had a wife and children I couldn’t feed or keep safe, no matter how hard I worked? Would I do everything I could to bring them to safety and opportunity, even if it meant breaking a few laws? Damn right I would!


If life was fair, we wouldn’t have half a million people seeking sanctuary in Europe, we wouldn’t be talking about deporting blameless people brought here illegally as children. When it comes to quality of life, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth when millions of children are born every day without a spoon, clean water, food and a decent chance for survival. I don’t deny that countries need to secure their borders and set quotas for legal immigration, but should we demonize those risking everything to come here for that which we take for granted?


I’ve received the best of everything, and fairness had nothing to do with it. Fairness is a fairy tale, a first world luxury. Perhaps we shouldn’t be passing it along to our children.






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Luckily (perhaps) whenever my daughter complained about something "not being fair," both Mrs. Penwasser and I always shot back with "Well, life isn't fair. It's a board game, breakfast cereal, and defunct picture magazine, but it ain't fair." On a personal note, I'm sure these retorts will come back to haunt me in a couple decades when my daughter holds the cord that powers equipment keeping me alive.
By: Al Penwasser on September 23, 2015
Life isn't fair and teaching kids everyone is a winner does them a disservice. When they get out in the real world and get knocked down, they don't know what to do and can't handle it. Recently, an athlete's two sons came home with trophies they got just for participating in an event. The guy told his sons why that was wrong and took the trophies back to the school and told them they were sending kids a bad message. I thought that was just awesome.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 23, 2015
No, life isn't fair. The bad guys sometimes get away with heinous crimes, and many innocent good guys are born into horrifying conditions. In the animal kingdom, survival is everything, so only the strong survive, which certainly isn't fair. However, that doesn't mean we humans should stop teaching our children about the concepts of fairness and treating other people with kindness. Those are things to which we should aspire, and no matter how others are behaving, each of us has the option to consciously choose to treat others in a fair and equitable way, one person at a time. Doesn't mean we can't reserve the option of distancing ourselves from those whose actions are deplorable, but the best any of us can do sometimes is to "brighten the corner where we are." Should we teach our children to expect the world to treat them fairly or honorably, or that they "deserve" awards and accolades without accomplishment? Of course not. But we can teach them, and we can model, the kind of behavior we want them to adopt. We can treat others the way we want to be treated, rather than how they may be treating us. As for the immigrants? I'm ashamed at the way our country is treating them.
By: Susan Swiderski on September 23, 2015
Susan (above) put it better than I ever could!!
By: fishducky on September 23, 2015
By: The Bug on September 23, 2015
Oh this is so excellently written and deserves a great debate or talking of minds. I believe in the value of fairness and trying to be fair in an unfair world. Getting trophies or saying there are no losers is actually very unfair. We are setting kids up to fail because kids do not have to work at it. I have had clients in my office, young people, who look their noses down at finding a job in a hotel cleaning rooms or being a janitor and I have had other clients, from other countries, working 3 jobs, doping whatever they can to maintain a home, food and basics. Many times these wonderful people have experienced great heartache but are so thankful. They also send a large amount of their money back to their families to help them survive. The kids who grew up with so much given to them would rather just stay at home, while mom and dad work hard for their stay at home, eat the food, live rent free and have everything catered to them. This is unfair to the kids! When mom and dad are gone, what will these kids do? They have not been brought up to be independent and live a life that can be unfair and cruelly so. These kids live a life where they are not told to be fair-minded to others but only look at what's in it for them. They are in for a rude awakening. With the people leaving their home land in droves, they are leaving behind their culture, their homes, the land with only what they can carry. That these same people are met with resistance is not new. I remember the German ship in the later 1930's carrying a large amount of Jewish people and the Captain, who was German, tried to seek asylum in the States, he was turned down. Britain, Holland and others accepted them but some perished in the camps. This is not new what is happening now and neither are the people who bellow that they will take their jobs away.
By: Birgit on September 23, 2015
Where do you draw the line? I don't know. I have room in my house for at least six homeless people but I am unwilling to open up to them It would be cramped, but I could make the room. We have the same problem as a country. It isn't fair, i am sometimes ashamed by my selfishness, but without limits there would be fairness in the sense that eventually everyone would have nothing. As a country we should do more, but their must be limits. That's it for me, I have no answer, I'm not sure there is an answer. It is not fair.
By: cranky on September 23, 2015
You raise some great points, Stephen, as is indicated by the quality and thoughtfulness of some of the comments above. I can add nothing but I agree with much of what both you and your commenters say.
By: Catalyst on September 23, 2015
I've been waiting for this "equal" business to explode since my children were in grade school and the policy changed so that all kids received an award at the end of school, even if it were only for participation. This never ending push to make sure everyone is the winner is wrong. There is no such thing as fair, there never has been and never will be.
By: Terri@Coloring Outside the Lines on September 23, 2015
Um. Wow. Thought provoking, at the least. Things aren't fair, but I guess I have always been of the mind, that's why we help those who aren't on the good end of things... ? Cat
By: Cat on September 23, 2015
no fairness is not a given but I don't think it's a concept to just be tossed out. we may know that life isn't fair but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to BE fair. fairness is not loving all equally but giving each equal opportunity. as for this country and the current wave of anti-immigrants based on wanting to keep this country white and christian...this I do not understand. I like diversity and if the country is getting a little browner and less christian, so what. we are all human beings and no matter what our color or religion or none, everybody wants the same thing...a safe place to live and raise their family and an opportunity to succeed.
By: Ellen Abbott on September 23, 2015
Well, said. A word I use continually is fortunate. I was born in a great country because my ancestors suffered and worked extremely hard to get here. I should not have a say as to who comes here.
By: red on September 23, 2015
All of us are created equal before the law of the land, i think that's what the Founding Fathers meant. Not that we are all the same, with the same talents and capacities.
By: mimi on September 23, 2015
Stephen you have provided a well stated and well argued essay and point of view. You provoke thought and soul searching. Fairness is not a state of nature but rather an aspirational idea. It is held as an ideal and is incorporated into our social fabric in complex ways. When I was a working journalist it was a common response that we strived for "Objectivity." That's a bit like fairness. We attempted to be objective, we "subjective" lot of journalists of all stripes and colors and attitudes and products of our own perceptions. But as a craft we were committed to Objectivity. I think it led us to try to be fair, honest, balanced and as unbiased as humans can be. That was then. We realized that objective was an ideal. Today we have news networks that have chosen to view the world from their own perch, perspective and tilt. Objectivity is not the great ideal that it was. I fear that if we were to cave in to holding out fairness as something we seek and strive for, we shall accelerate our slide down a slippery slope. We are barely out of the swamp now, and there is evidence we have begun a decline in reason, achievement of intellect and rationality. Perhaps there is a bit of fair dust around the notion of fairness, but I don't think we are capable of abandoning that principle in favor of our baser notions.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 23, 2015
A very thought provoking post! Life is not fair; we still should pursue it. Similar to happiness - not a given, just the pursuit of it.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 23, 2015
Very profound post. Just want to pick up on one theme both in the post and in some of the comments. The ideas of "fairness" and "everyone's a winner" are not the same thing at all. I believe in fairness as a guiding principle for our society and our lives, but have serious issues with the PC movement to do away with winners and losers. One talks about opportunities, the other talks about outcomes. Opportunities should be equal (and fair) - so everyone gets to take part in the race. But that doesn't mean the outcome has to be equal. You're better at running than me, that's got nothing to do with fairness, it just is. So you win the race. Nothing unfair about that, unless you cheated :)
By: Botanist on September 23, 2015
Excellent post. And you're is NOT fair. But that doesn't mean shouldn't STRIVE to make it more fair. Yes, we'll fail to achieve true fairness, but if we can make just a LITTLE difference, it's worth the effort. But it is a slippery slope....bringing in the scared and hungry is compassionate. Letting in those who want to harm us is foolish. *sigh*
By: Scott Park on September 23, 2015
Everyone has written honest and forthright opinions. And aren't we lucky we can do this in our country. Immigration made our country what it is today. However that does not mean we can allow anyone to enter. There are a few that would enter to hurt /kill those who live here just because we believe in freedom of religion, womens rights and especially freedom of speech. I welcome those who want to be here for freedom not to be here to wreak havoc. If I were to emigrate to another country I would do my best to learn and use the new language, make friends with my neighbors and assimilate as best as I could by learning the dos and don'ts of that culture.
By: Kathe W. on September 23, 2015
You have excelled your self here Steve, an excellent thought provoking post which applies not just to Americans but every country in which we call civilized.
By: John on September 23, 2015
Yes, life has never been fair, nor will it ever be. Perhaps the best we can do is try to make it fairer.
By: Bryan Jones on September 24, 2015
Wonderful post Stephen. While I do agree with a lot of it, I also see Susan's point. We can't just quit trying to make things "fair." Not the same, not all awarded equally, but the opportunity should be there. That would be fair. .
By: Akansas Patti on September 24, 2015
Good essay and I found myself trying to remember what John Rawls said (which I read in college) in his book, A Theory of Justice" where he tried to make the case that justice was fairness...
By: Sage on September 24, 2015
Stephen, I agree with you. I've thought about addressing this topic too, but I doubt I'd be able to articulate it as well as you. Great post. Rick
By: Rick Watson on September 24, 2015
So well written -- as always. For good or bad, I was raised by a father who always told me, "Life isn't fair." So, it came as no surprise to me.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 25, 2015
I too agree with much that has been shared. We are all immigrants in North America. As for fairness: try to explain it to a child beaten by their parent(s). A person with Cancer or other grave illness. To a senior who's golden years are far from golden. To a veteran who did not come home, a soldier with PTSD. Life is far from fair.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 25, 2015
I too agree with much that has been shared. We are all immigrants in North America. As for fairness: try to explain it to a child beaten by their parent(s). A person with Cancer or other grave illness. To a senior who's golden years are far from golden. To a veteran who did not come home, a soldier with PTSD. Life is far from fair.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 25, 2015
You are right about life in this world being utterly unfair, and if all was as it naturally seems to be, our existences would be a great tragedy--even for most of those who appear to have all of the breaks. For they bear the burden of giving of their abundance to those without. Ah, but there is so much more going on with out lives in this world than what most want to understand, and this is the greatest tragedy of all. For it will be as it should be in the end, but of what value is this to those who do not want to believe it?
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on September 28, 2015

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