|Alice:||It's not fair. If I can be on time, you should be on time.|
What is valuable about being fair? We're all humans, and we all have roughly the same needs and desires. We all want to not be hungry or cold and wet, nor in pain. So at first glance it seems logical that if we all had the same stuff, that we'd all have the same happiness level. So if things were "fair", we'd be happy.
But that's generally not the case for me, in the specifics. I know that having a fast, expensive car doesn't really make me happy; having a familiar, soothing car does. And I like analyzing problems; most people apparently don't, so making things more complicated is what makes me happy, sometimes. Most people seem to like meeting new people. I usually don't, unless I'm drunk. So how do we figure out whether we should be upset about our situation if we don't use "fairness" as a criteria?
Here's a conversation similar to one I bet you've had:
|Bert:||There are six of us. Let's just split the check six ways.|
|Alfred:||Sounds fine to me.|
|Cecilia:||Hey! I had only a salad and a diet coke, but Alfred had a burger with fries and two Margaritas! That's not fair!|
|Cecilia:||I don't want to pay for part of Alfred's burger and drinks.|
Appealing to fairness is also an excuse for us to avoid accepting criticism or negotiating with another person.
|Annette:||When I come to visit, I would like you to spend more time with me. The last time I came to see you, you spent all your time talking with your friends.|
|Bill:||What? That's not fair! How about the times I come to see you and you talk on the phone with your sister?|
(Bill also needs to lighten up, and not take everything as an attack.)
"Fairness" may even be the embodiment in a word for an aspect of natural selection. If I'm an ape, and I see that the other ape has a banana in his hand but I have none, I might think, "Oh, crap, he has more food than I do. He'll have more energy to mate with females, and thus spread around his DNA! I better get a banana, too!" So this could be encoded into a social instinct. (Of course an ape doesn't think in English, but I bet the mental image of the other guy mating more often is pretty motivating.)
Like a lot of instincts, though, I think we've grown as a species beyond the need for comparing our loot with others' loot. I think it's a dangerous idea, because being "fair" is almost universally impossible, and, I think, unnecessary.
If we are honest with ourselves and others about what we really need and want, it is easier for others to gauge the cost of giving us those things and it is easier for us to determine whether we're going to get it consistently.
It's hard to acknowledge other people's needs, and it's hard not to feel attacked. It takes time to change our learned behavior, especially in the face of society's influence. Our kneejerk reaction is to wonder what we're going to lose by having the discussion. I have trouble with it myself. But when I feel angry and that life is unfair, I'm trying to ask myself more and more often, "what is it that I actually require in order to feel satisfied in this situation?" rather than "what is fair?"
In my first example, Alice should probably think about why she's unhappy that Bob wasn't on time. Maybe she doesn't like being bored, or maybe she's stressed because she always races around so she won't be late. She needs to figure out those things, because just making Bob race around to try and be on time isn't going to make things any better.
I think "fairness" is yet another idea that is incomplete, dangerous, and ultimately defeating.
As a postscript, I don't mean "you should be happy with what you have". I just mean "you should base your unhappiness on what you have or don't, not what others have." I mean, I still want a nuclear moon rocket, and no one else has one of those. Except Tintin. His rocket kicks ass.
Sun Sep 17 17:08:10 PDT 2006