Against Fairness

Against Fairness

by Stephen T. Asma

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From the school yard to the workplace, there’s no charge more damning than “you’re being unfair!” Born out of democracy and raised in open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics—Lady Justice—wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity. In Against Fairness, polymath philosopher Stephen T. Asma drags them triumphantly back into the light. Through playful, witty, but always serious arguments and examples, he vindicates our unspoken and undeniable instinct to favor, making the case that we would all be better off if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness—indeed, if we favored favoritism.   Conscious of the egalitarian feathers his argument is sure to ruffle, Asma makes his point by synthesizing a startling array of scientific findings, historical philosophies, cultural practices, analytic arguments, and a variety of personal and literary narratives to give a remarkably nuanced and thorough understanding of how fairness and favoritism fit within our moral architecture. Examining everything from the survival-enhancing biochemistry that makes our mothers love us to the motivating properties of our “affective community,” he not only shows how we favor but the reasons we should. Drawing on thinkers from Confucius to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, he reveals how we have confused fairness with more noble traits, like compassion and open-mindedness. He dismantles a number of seemingly egalitarian pursuits, from classwide Valentine’s Day cards to civil rights, to reveal the envy that lies at their hearts, going on to prove that we can still be kind to strangers, have no prejudice, and fight for equal opportunity at the same time we reserve the best of what we can offer for those dearest to us.   Fed up with the blue-ribbons-for-all absurdity of "fairness" today, and wary of the psychological paralysis it creates, Asma resets our moral compass with favoritism as its lodestar, providing a strikingly new and remarkably positive way to think through all our actions, big and small.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226923468
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Stephen T. Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago as well as a senior fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture. He is the author of many books, most recently The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition and The Evolution of Imagination, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Against Fairness


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Stephen T. Asma
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-02986-3

Chapter One

Even Jesus Had a Favorite

"I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son's life." That's what I blurted into a microphone during a panel discussion on ethics. I was laughing when I said it, but the priest sitting next to me turned sharply in horror and the communist sitting next to him raised her hand to her throat and stared daggers at me. Why was I on a panel with a priest and a revolutionary communist? Long story—not very interesting: we were debating the future of ethics with special attention to the role of religion. The interesting part, however, is that at some point, after we all shook hands like adults and I was on my way home, I realized that I meant it—I would choke them all. Well, of course, one can't be entirely sure that one's actions will follow one's intentions. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. But, given some weird Twilight Zone scenario wherein all their deaths somehow saved my son's life, I was at least hypothetically committed. The caveman intentions were definitely there.

If some science-fiction sorcerer came to me with a button and said that I could save my son's life by pressing it, but then (cue the dissonant music) ten strangers would die somewhere ... I'd have my finger down on it before he finished his cryptic challenge. If he raised it to one hundred strangers, a million, or the whole population, it would still take the same microsecond for me to push the button.

The utilitarian demand—that I should always maximize the greatest good for the greatest number—seemed reasonable to me in my twenties but made me laugh after my son was born. My draconian bias is not just the testosterone-fueled excesses of the male psyche. Mothers can be aggressive lionesses when it comes to their offspring. Mothers are frequently held up as the icons of selfless nurturing love, but that's because we offspring—the ones holding them up as icons—are the lucky recipients of that biased love. From that point of view, a mother's behavior is infinitely charitable. But if you're outside the clan, then tread carefully. Try getting between a mammal mother and her kid, and you will see natural bias at its brutal finest.

So, as I learned, becoming a parent brings some new emotional "organs" with it, some organs I never would have thought possible to grow in me just five years earlier. These "organs" process the intense protective biases—the "chemicals"—of family solidarity. How do we square these preferential emotions with our larger social ethics?

Americans are taught, from an early age, that no one is intrinsically "higher" or "lower" than anyone else, that everyone is equally valuable. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, "Our nation is built on the idea that all citizens as citizens are of equal worth and dignity." So how do we reconcile our favoritism with our conflicting sense of equality for all?

Some theorists explain this inner conflict as a fight between our raw animal emotions and our rational (principled) system of the good (impartial justice). But that makes things easy—too easy. The tension between preference and fairness is not just between the individual heart and the collective head. Rather it is a tension between two competing notions of the good.

Charles Darwin argued that the moral life itself is actually built upon the tribal devotions of our ancestors. The foundation of morality lies in the social instincts, including under this term the family ties. These instincts are highly complex, and in the case of the lower animals give special tendencies toward certain definite actions; but the more important elements are love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy. Animals endowed with the social instincts take pleasure in one another's company, warn one another of danger, defend and aid one another in many ways. These instincts do not extend to all the individuals of the species, but only those of the same community.

And it is perhaps this last line, about the provincialism of our instinctual devotions, that will most concern us in this book about favoritism. Is it really primitive, as the egalitarians claim, to privilege some over others?

Saints and Favorites

It's hard to imagine someone more fair-minded and even self-sacrificing than Jesus. The list of his ethical peers is short: maybe Buddha, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, some miscellaneous saints and martyrs. Fill in the blanks. Jesus was such an equal-opportunity humanitarian that he regularly went to eat and spend time with the outcasts, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the pariahs. He liked just about everybody and encouraged us to do the same. He took his goodwill one step further, of course, and recommended that we should even love our enemies. This indiscriminate love is arguably the central teaching of Christianity.

And yet, even Jesus, the paragon of equal treatment, had a favorite disciple. We don't know for sure which disciple it was—most think it was John—but we're told in the Gospels that he had a favorite one, and that he even had a three-man inner circle. He had a posse inside his posse.

Another holy man that earns our respect for his selfless charity and his leveling egalitarian approach is Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha. He pushed the bounds of fairness through all the caste-system boundaries of Indian society and arrived at a totally impartial social and even metaphysical philosophy. Not only could women and untouchables attain enlightenment—a scandalous idea at the time—but every animal species was put on equal status too. And yet, despite all this philosophical impartiality, the Buddha had a best friend, Ananda, who had no equal among the Buddha's associates. The Enlightened One had a right-hand man.

Is it fair for me to pit the universal egalitarianism of many religions against the favoritism of family and friends? Surely one need not preclude the other. In some passages of the New Testament, for example, the tension is not between filial love and universal love, but between filial love and Jesus devotion. "For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:35–37). This suggests a contest of allegiance, pitting one set of favorites for a new one. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was not a fan. "All this means the breakup of the biological family tie for the sake of creed—an attitude which had a great deal to do with the intolerance that came into the world with the spread of Christianity." But one of the great Eastern saints of the twentieth century, Gandhi, also recognized the incompatibility between spiritualism and favoritism.

In his autobiography, Gandhi suggested that saintliness required forfeiture of the usual bonds of family and friendship. The seeker of goodness, Gandhi recommended, must have no close friendships or exclusive loves because these will introduce loyalty, partiality, bias, and favoritism. In order to love everyone, we must not preferentially love any individual or group.

When George Orwell read Gandhi's autobiography in 1948, he was deeply troubled by the Indian saint's "anti-humanism." It's hard for us to envision Gandhi—lover of all mankind—as anti-humanist. But Orwell viewed any attempt to subjugate human values to the demands of some transcendent, ideological value system as anti-human. While Orwell remained impressed by Gandhi's political achievements, he was stunned by Gandhi's views on friendship and family. Saintly egalitarianism seemed repugnant to Orwell, who believed that "love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others."

I want to side definitively with Orwell here and cannot follow the Indian saint to his lofty conclusion. I must agree with Orwell's claim that "the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty ... and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals."

Gandhi's saintly ideal of non-attachment may not be compatible with the humanistic ideal, which maintains that this flawed world (with all its liabilities of attachment) is the only one we have. But in a way, the ideal of non-attachment is also secretly at work in some of our more dogmatic liberal traditions of universal equality for all.

Gandhi is perhaps an outlier, an extremist against favoritism. But his radical position helps us grasp the philosophical tensions between fairness and favoritism. Buddha, with his bff Ananda, was not as extreme in his detachment. And one suspects that Gandhi, despite his own advice, wasn't either. In fact, Gandhi's relationship with Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach, whom he met in South Africa, looks extremely intimate and seems to violate every one of the guru's ideals of detachment.

I'm not a particularly religious person. I'm not overly impressed by Buddhas, Mahatmas, or Messiahs. I'm actually a skeptical agnostic most days, but I start with these religious "exemplars of equality" for dramatic effect. Why do even these major saints of universal love and impartiality still have favorites? Why do they discriminate at all, if everybody is equally valuable? The answer, I will argue in this book, is that they can't do otherwise. It is human to prefer. Love is discriminatory. And if the world's scriptures can be believed, even the gods have preferences. The monotheistic God is no better on this account than the polytheistic traditions. The Abrahamic God often gets jealous, has "chosen people," and generally plays favorites.

None of this is breaking news, of course. So what's new in my approach to the favoritism/fairness divide? While everyone has a general sense that favoritism feels natural and that fairness vies against it, philosophers and leaders have almost always sided with fairness and against favoritism. Religious leaders have agreed that we tend toward preference and bias, but we should generally resist this pull and fight our own inner discriminatory tendencies. Biologists and social theorists, since Darwin, have joined the ranks of anti-bias, by arguing that our animal nature might be selfish, but our uniquely human capacities allow us to fight against our animal natures. Implicit in this idea, that our better angels can subdue our baser instincts, is the assumption that these instincts are selfish—are focused on self-preservation. But this assumption has skewed the conversation into a false dichotomy: either you're for yourself, or you're for fairness. A recent example of this false dichotomy can be found in Peter Corning's otherwise insightful book The Fair Society, in which he assumes that opposition to fairness is tantamount to Ayn Rand–style individual selfishness. I share Corning's and other sane people's aversion to the Ayn Rand cult of self-interest (an ethic endorsed by Alan Greenspan). But I don't agree that the solution or forced alternative is egalitarian fairness.

I want to argue that a huge part of our values has been left out of this usual dichotomy, namely, our tribal biases. Our values landscape is not a hill of fairness and a valley of selfishness. The bonds of our affections (our biases) are not reducible to either selfishness or selflessness, but require their own autonomous territory. Family ties, for example, don't fit neatly into the usual dichotomy of selfish/selfless values. Bias, nepotism, and tribal ethics have taken it on the chin for too long. Against an army of pious guides and gurus, I will try to make the case for favoritism.

When I explained to my friends that I was writing a book called Against Fairness, they looked at me like I had made some final descent into madness. I might as well write a book Against Mothers or Against Oxygen. On the face of it, the project looks insane. But I don't mind an uphill battle. Let me begin, then, by offering some provisional definitions of terms like "tribal," "fairness," and "nepotism."

Fairness, Tribes, and Nephews

"Tribal" may be a confusing term. For many readers, the term will have inescapable connotations of Africa or an indigenous ethnic clan from some exotic region. There's nothing wrong with this. Tribal can indeed describe the Zulus of southern Africa or the Apache of the American Southwest. But I wish to use the broader meaning of tribal, such that it also describes an extended family, a nuclear family, and possibly even your bowling team. A tribe, in this informal sense, is a social group of members who have greater loyalty to one another than to those outside the group. A tribe is an us in a milieu of thems. And the defining properties of each tribe might differ significantly—it could be blood that ties a tribe together; it could be class, language, race, or a mutual devotion to Doctor Who or The Big Lebowski.

Twentieth-century anthropology searched for a logic of tribes. Many researchers believed that some common formal essence or structural grid underlay the various tribes. They searched for a similar recipe of ingredients in every cultural case. Every time they settled on some precise definition, they'd come upon tribes that didn't fit the bill. In response to this, more recent researchers have given up the search for a structural essence and accepted the amoeba-like malleability of tribes. Tribes are highly flexible, and they adapt to local challenges.

It is also insufficient to think of tribes in purely evolutionary terms. We often find analysts, especially in the "clash of civilizations" debate, talking about tribes as a step or stage—one that's on its way to becoming a state. There might be some other argument for claiming that tribes are primitive, but there seems to be little evidence that tribes are always supplanted or replaced by later kinds of political organization. Even when many different groups coalesce, by choice or force, tribal affiliations can continue within larger organizations of power and authority. Clans and cliques don't always go extinct when states evolve into existence.

Most important, perhaps, is this: The fact that there have been some very nasty and hostile tribes throughout history does not nullify the tribe as a valid form of social organization. I cannot underscore this point enough. Just because there are some bad motorcycle gangs or bankers or skateboarders, for example, does not mean that these groups are intrinsically deviant or corrupt. And yet a similarly sloppy logic has animated many objections to tribes, clans, cliques, and factions. We will need to begin our inquiry, at least, without assuming a contemptuous view of tribes.

What do we mean by "fairness"? Etymologically, the term "fair" seems to have originated as an aesthetic term, describing someone beautiful or pleasant. Only gradually did the term migrate to the ethical domain, where it tended to mean a person or action that was unblemished by moral stain. When something is fair, it is generally considered free from bias and prejudice. If it's used as an adjective for social interaction or for a distribution of goods, then it generally implies an equal measure for concerned parties. Philosopher John Rawls took fairness to be the key ingredient in justice, stating that "fundamental to justice, is the concept of fairness which relates to right dealing between persons who are cooperating with or competing against each other, as when one speaks of fair games, fair competition, and fair bargains." And somewhere in the background of our usual thinking about fairness is the assumption of the equality of all mankind—egalitarianism.

The idea of universal respect is endorsed in both the modern secular and the ancient sacred traditions of the West. Our biblical traditions sometimes assert that human equality can be found in the idea that we were all made in God's image, and our government documents affirm equality on the grounds of inalienable rights that were endowed by our Creator. Philosophers generally agree that modern Western society is premised on egalitarian ideology. We've already seen philosopher Martha Nussbaum's claim that all citizens are of equal worth. And philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us that "the average person needs to do very little thinking about the bases of universal respect ... because just about everyone accepts this as an axiom today." Moreover, Taylor suggests that tribal thinking is uncivilized because it draws its circles of respect narrowly, while "higher civilizations" include the whole human species in their circle of respect.

Generally speaking, our ideologies run in favor of fairness and equal treatment. Some of us might even assume that we are always upholding this principle. Ironically, some Westerners even assume that it is their commitment to equality and fairness that makes them superior to other individuals and cultures. It is our notion of equality that makes us the "higher" tribe.

In this ironic formulation, we can smell a burning friction between two concepts. The concept that everybody gets an equal share of the good scrapes up against another concept of fairness: winner takes all, or at least takes more. When merit or skill trumps the competitor, we generally think it is fair to apportion more reward. May the best man win, as we say. Merit deserves more. But this merit-based fairness vies against "equal shares" or "equal outcomes" fairness.

Jesus trades on these competing concepts in his paradoxical parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16). A householder farmer goes out in the morning and hires some workers to labor in his vineyard, promising them one silver denarius for a full day's work. At midday the farmer hires another crew to join the vineyard work, and in the final hour of the workday he hires yet another team. When all the laborers finish at nightfall, they return and the farmer pays them all the exact same wage—one silver denarius each. Adding insult to injury, the farmer rebukes the all-day workers who complain about the inequity.


Excerpted from Against Fairness by STEPHEN T. ASMA Copyright © 2013 by Stephen T. Asma. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1  Even Jesus Had a Favorite
Saints and Favorites
Fairness, Tribes, and Nephews
Two Classic Cases of Favoritism
2 To Thy Own Tribe Be True: Biological Favoritism
Moral Gravity
The Biochemistry of Favoritism
Humans Are Wired for Favoritism
A Healthy Addiction
Flexible Favoritism
Kin Selection
Rational or Emotional Motives
Conflicting Brain Systems
Facts and Values
3 In Praise of Exceptions
Building the Grid of Impartiality
Going Off the Grid
Friendship and Favoritism
Reasonable Favoritism   4 “But, Dad, That’s Not Fair!”
The Fusion of Feelings and Ideas
Sowing the Seeds of Confusion: Sharing
Sowing the Seeds of Confusion: Open Minds
Envy and Fairness
Excellence, Fairness, and Favoritism
5 The Circle of Favors: Global Perspectives
Chinese Favoritism
Face Culture
Indian Favoritism
Disentangling Nepotism and Corruption
Disentangling Tribalism and Tragedy
6 “Your People Shall Be My People?” 
Minorities, Majorities, and Favoritism
Affirmative Action and Favoritism
The Finite Stretch
Feeling the Stones with Your Feet   7 Because You’re Mine, I Walk the Line
The Virtues of Favoritism
You Can’t Love Humanity. You Can Only Love People
The Future of Favoritism
The Archbishop and the Chambermaid

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