The Fallacy of “Fairness”


If there is ever a contest to pick which word has done the most damage to people’s thinking, and to actions to carry out that thinking, my nomination would be the word “fair.” It is a word thrown around by far more people than have ever bothered to even try to define it.

This mushy vagueness may be a big handicap in logic but it is a big advantage in politics. All sorts of people, with very different notions about what is or is not fair, can be mobilized behind this nice-sounding word, in utter disregard of the fact that they mean very different things when they use that word.

Some years ago, for example, there was a big outcry that various mental tests used for college admissions or for employment were biased and “unfair” to many individuals or groups. Fortunately there was one voice of sanity— David Riesman, I believe— who said: “The tests are not unfair. LIFE is unfair and the tests measure the results.”

If by “fair” you mean everyone having the same odds for achieving success, then life has never been anywhere close to being fair, anywhere or at any time. If you stop and think about it (however old-fashioned that may seem), it is hard even to conceive of how life could possibly be fair in that sense.

Even within the same family, among children born to the same parents and raised under the same roof, the first-borns on average have higher IQs than their brothers and sisters, and usually achieve more in life.

Unfairness is often blamed on somebody, even if only on “society.” But whose fault is it if you were not the first born? Since some groups have more children than others, a higher percentage of the next generation will be first-borns in groups that have smaller families, so such groups have an advantage over other groups.

Despite all the sound and fury generated in controversies over whether different groups have different genetic potential, even if they all have identical genetic potential the outcomes can still differ if they have different birth rates.

Twins have average IQs several points lower than children born singly.

Whether that is due to having to share resources in the womb or having to share parents’ attention after birth, the fact is what it is— and it certainly is not fair.

Many people fail to see the fundamental difference between saying that a particular thing— whether a mental test or an institution— is conveying a difference that already exists or is creating a difference that would not exist otherwise.

Creating a difference that would not exist otherwise is discrimination, and something can be done about that. But, in recent times, virtually any disparity in outcomes is almost automatically blamed on discrimination, despite the incredible range of other reasons for disparities between individuals and groups.

Nature’s discrimination completely dwarfs man’s discrimination. Geography alone makes equal chances virtually impossible. The geographic advantages of Western Europe over Eastern Europe— in climate and navigable waterways, among other things— have led to centuries of differences in income levels that were greater than income differences between blacks and whites in America today.

Just the fact that the lay of the land is different in different parts of Europe meant that it was easier for the Roman legions to invade Western Europe. This meant that Western Europeans had the advantages of the most advanced civilization in Europe at that time. Moreover, because Roman letters were used in Western Europe, the languages of that region had written versions centuries before the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe did.

The difference between literacy and illiteracy is a huge difference, and it remained huge for centuries. Was it the Slavs’ fault that the Romans did not want to climb over so many mountains to get to them?

To those living in Western Europe in the days of the Roman Empire, the idea of being conquered, and many slaughtered, by the Romans probably had no great appeal. But their descendants would benefit from their bad luck. And that doesn’t seem fair either.

  • Irony Radar

    Interesting that you should raise the issue of literacy at the end of your article. Here in Toronto (Canada), I was particularly disturbed by an allegedly literacy-supporting organization/charity bus shelter ads declaring that "Literacy. It's a right!"

    I wish I was leading you on here, but I'm dead serious!

    • Don

      The idea of literacy as a right disturbs you? You could reflect on that, I think.
      Possibly you are thinking along the lines of something to be earned but literacy is introduced at about 4 to 6, part of the process of creating functional adults. Anyone denying it to someone, e.g. Muslims to women and girls, does not have the interests of freedom in mind.
      Your thoughts?

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/robobbob robobbob

        How can the government ever guarantee it? How can they take a position that is impossible to enforce on all people in all circumstances? Perhaps the government should provide the opportunity for education, but it is the individual who ultimately determines the outcome, regardless of the opportunity, resources, or force, exerted.

        • Don

          The Individual.
          At 4 to 7.
          Simple, we make sure No One deprives anyone of a education because of any belief, ALL OVER The WORLD. ::: )))

          • http://intensedebate.com/people/robobbob robobbob

            wow, my original comment was a luke warm bash of public education didn't go through the filters.
            Anyway, responsible governments should provide education to the best of its abilities. A general accepted western principle. They should put up their signs where they're truely needed.
            claiming it as a right is a cheap trick that implies that anyone who disagrees with their methods, wasteful spending, or points out their failures, is somehow biased.

  • fareed

    Whoa! where does fair-and-balanced fit into this?

  • icewalker

    life is not and never has been "fair" with all the dynamics that life forces us to endure. There is no basis or platform to determine its baseline and the differances in societies and individual determination to simply work towards there goals cannot be regulated as to determine what is fair. As a master technician i shared the same training and resources as my work mates but in the day to day task and understanding our jobs as were paid solely on commission there was dramatic differances in wages. As the fair word comes to mind is that even tho the same challenges faced each of us one was paid significantly more. That being said do we retard the work of the skilled individual whom demonstrates tasks being performed in less time and of higher quality so as not appear unfair. No is my answer and to suggest that holding individuals down to keep them from succeeding by there work ethic and motivation is to invite ruin to a persons potential abilities to contribute more and thus have greater potential for success. life is just not fair nor is it supposed to be, our talents and skills vary greatly from indivuals

  • USMCSniper

    Those who remain immature and go through life demanding that the world cater to their every wish, set themselves up for disappointment, frustration, and resentment. Only those who are balanced and realize that things will not always go as they would like can experience peace and happiness. They realize that storms will break, fires will rage, and tragedies will descend. They prefer to avoid disaster if possible. However, if it’s unavoidable they will accept it and, like countless others before them, overcome it and grow stronger because of it.

    "Quod non me destruit me confirmat" means " What does not kill me makes me stronger,"

    • Stephen D.

      A very FAIR statement Sniper. Well said!

    • John C. Davidson

      I raised three children, two of them were conservative, the other a liberal who finally suceeded in ruining my 33 year marriage to her mother. I thought she'd quit bothering me when she grew up, but liberals never do grow up. Unfortunately, my situation is not an unusual case.

  • oldjags

    You can add the word 'justice' as well. Everybody's always clamoring for 'economic justice, or 'social justice'. Justice just means that you get what you truly deserve. If you're an illiterate drug addict with no job skills, who's to say that having to live in a homeless shelter isn't justice? Just as elections have consequences, so too do the decisions and choices you make in life. Life may not be fair, but if you get what you deserve, it has at least treated you with justice.

    • coyote3

      I heard one time that justice is when everyone receives his "due". We always said that we had many who "overdue". Kinda like what you said.

  • Richard Aubrey

    "fair" means I want what I want and anybody who tells me about the costs to somebody else isn't being "fair". In fact, he's being a big meanie.

  • MikeyVA

    Fair means you get what you need. Fairness does not mean you get what you want.

    For all off thoese green fools, nature is not fair. Predators eat what they can catch. They didn't care if their prey was cute , or sweet or anything. They were prey.

  • Steve from Texas

    "Life is not fair, and fairness can not be legislated" JFK

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-25952-LA-Faith--Family-Examiner Paula Whidden

    yes, yes, yes…often that word "fair" is thrown around by people who want what they want usually at the expense of someone else who wants what they want. Whenever I hear someone say "that's fair" or "That's not fair" immediately the question posed in my head is, "Fair to whom?" If one person considers something fair, it's a guarantee that someone else considers that same thing unfair.

  • glpage

    When I hear "That's not fair" it usually makes me think of an eight year old pitching a tantrum.

  • John C. Davidson

    The idea of teaching a child to earn their own living, while taught at home, is contradicted in the government's educational system. The idea behind this dictum is obviously the way to insure that the government has control of an individual's actions at the expense of self-reliance.

  • jerry

    The understanding for the word "Fair", is like beauty, It's in the eyes of the beholder.
    Anyone who thinks that life should be fair to all is a fool and doomed to disappointment. Anyone who wants fairness in family, religion, politics, social justice or any other element we mortals must endure is a fool who will live a wretched life. Anyone who espouses the notion to fairness is a fool who prefers to live in an illusion of the real world. Anyone who wants fairness is a fool.

  • R. R. Everson, Ph.D.

    "My Fair Lady" was a special, unusually attractive lady; particularly after she received uniquely special treatment from an uncommon source. So there can never be "fairness" when so many ladies are lacking, not only in such attractiveness but in that special treatment.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bubba4 bubba4

    The one example you give is that "years ago" people said some tests weren't "fair". I don't hear people using the word "fair" politically. The picture for this article there is a woman holding a sign that says "fairness for all"….maybe you should address the article directly to her naivity.

    This is another "build and destroy strawman" article that is FPM's stock in trade. As civilized people, we should strive for a society that is fair, reasonable and just. "Fair" is a good thing. I have never heard the argument put forward that man should attempt to make hings that are intrinsically unfair…fair. Who is saying this? Do you think the lady with the sign wants you to hobble her so it's "fair" to cripple people? Of course not. That's stupid…like this article.

    • Joe

      Like the man said … liberals never grow up. Your "signature" argument that society should stive to be fair is at best, painfully simple and wholly unrealistic. As is always the case … the liberal line is equaly as shallow as it is predictable. Hey … it took you two whole paragraphs to conclude that an opposing view was STUPID. Why'd you wait so long?

  • USMCSniper

    Genuine fairness is exemplified in all runners beginning at a designated starting line, following the same course, and finishing whenever they happen to. The Left's perversion of fairness would be exemplified in all runners starting wherever necessary for all to finish at the same time. In this way, the Left's "fairness" is fundamentally opposite of actual fairness, a rigged game, handicapped to the point of absurdity.

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