14 March 2012

On the General Fairness of Life

When I was growing up one of the things that I was repeatedly told when I complained about things being unfair, was that “life isn’t fair.” This despite the fact that I was also told was that I was supposed to be fair. At the time it didn’t have to make sense, my own life was largely out of my control anyway. Looking back now I’ve found myself rather irritated by what seems to me to be deliberate misinformation. Now I realize that despite all the euphemisms and protestations to the contrary, life actually is fair.

Of course we have to define what we mean by both life, and fair. The latter is I think relatively self explanatory; it is simply egalitarian, unbiased. If one person is allowed to do something then I should be allowed to do it too. This steps over all sorts of relative restrictions like power hierarchies, proximity, availability and the like, but the basic meaning is there; equality or balance.

Life on the other hand is a little more difficult to define because there are a number of uses. In the euphemism “life isn’t fair,” we’re using it as a noun to describe the objective world outside of our own selves, the “not I” of our consciousness. Life in this use means general existence, and our limited awareness of it. As such, it seems that “life” is pretty vast and any one individual comprises only the tiniest fraction of it. It is rather arrogant then to think that the composite material of the universe would single any one of us out as especially deserving of any particular treatment.

Actually, while “life” and “fair” are important, it’s that last word, “treatment” or “treat” that is actually central to my point. Treat is a verb which requires intention of outcome. It needs thought, logic or reasoning behind it because it involves a value judgment. To “treat” one’s self is to choose a preferred option over less preferred options. To treat someone nicely (or not) is to do so knowing one has other choices. These are value judgments, not “natural” ones. Just as life doesn’t make moral judgments, it doesn’t make value judgments (of which the former are a variety); both are creations of the human mind. As such it would be more accurate to say that life as we have defined it is separate from the notion of “fairness” which is a human abstraction of value; life doesn’t care one way or the other. It’s our subjective experience of life that seems unfair because of the actions people take based on their subjective value judgments.

So when people say “Life isn’t fair,” it isn’t exactly a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It conceals the fact that our experience of life is dependent upon the way people “value” each other, and then act on those values. To say that life isn’t fair then is something of an excuse. If it seems unfair, it is so because of the actions of people. Thus it makes sense to ask what effect our own valuation and subsequent actions has on other people’s experience of fairness.


Vincent said...

Your post made my mind jump to an episode of The X-Files where Scully is relating to Mulder the advice her father gave her to "always respect nature because it has no respect for you."

Concepts like "respect" or "treatment" are human inventions that don't occur naturally and I think it's very important to keep that distinction in mind when considering life or nature and our human interaction with it and I applaud your clear dissection and exploration of the subject.

However, I'm not sure I agree with you that life actually is fair. I'm more convinced that life just IS. It simply exists and (as you've already alluded to) it's our reaction to any given event and our treatment of each other based on our values that gives life the illusion of meaning. What we perceive as our life largely boils down to how we treat each other which is why I'm so fond of saying, "Society would be great if it wasn't for all the people."

Lastly, I think the reason that the phrase "life isn't fair" (or "life is fair" for that matter) is so inherently flawed is due to the fact it's attempting to give meaning to something that's essentially meaningless.

Thanks for your thoughts on life : ) I love kicking around concepts like these!

The Goodkind said...

Absolutely, Vincent. One of my favorites is the assumption that "natural" equates to "right" and vice-versa.

I said life is fair in the title because it is contradictory to what we've all heard and so, I thought, more provocative. I agree with you that life as you say just "is."