20 May 2010

What's Fair for Right and Left?

The newest issue of The Nation includes an almost counter-intuitive opinion piece by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who warns readers against believing that life is fair. Apart from whether it is or not, the author thinks that thinking so might turn you into a conservative.

That's the counter-intuitive part for me, because the conservative with whom I'm most familiar, Mr. Right, is fond of saying that life isn't fair. But Harris-Lacewell appears to want liberals, progressives, etc. to acknowledge the same thing in order not to adopt Mr. Right's conservative attitude. We'd better check whether these two people mean the same thing when they talk about fairness.

"There is some evidence that believing in the fundamental fairness of the world can lead to surprisingly conservative reactions in moments of disaster and suffering," Harris-Lacewell writes, "When faced with the circumstances that reveal human vulnerability, people have two choices: they can determine that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victims must somehow be responsible for their suffering."

Are there really only two choices? Harris-Lacewell cites "decades of psychological research" to demonstrate that "those most attached to the belief that the world is fair are those most likely to reconcile their distress about unearned suffering by blaming the victims." One study appears to show that observers grow more contemptuous the more observed subjects suffer under certain circumstances. Shown a group of people learning a task, and seeing some people shocked for making mistakes while others making the same mistakes were merely admonished, the observers "expressed much lower opinions" of the shock victims.

"When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocent victims, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even if that means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer," the columnist explains, "The belief in a just world can act as a psychological distortion encouraging support of political agendas focused on individual effort rather than structural change."

What Harris-Lacewell means by "fairness" should be more apparent by now. In her chosen context, it means an ordered universe that operates predictably to reward good behavior, at least, and probably also to punish wrong behavior. This sense of fairness is founded on the Panglossian presumption that this is the best of all possible worlds, or for simpler minds on the sovereignty of an omniscient and just God. She worries that Barack Obama misguidedly promoted this idea of fairness when he said during his presidential campaign (in her paraphrase) that "the world was basically a fair and just place." But whatever he actually said would most likely not translate into, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," which is what Harris-Lacewell implies. In any event, the complacency based on belief in fairness that troubles her looks more like the monotheist faith in an omnipotent, lawful deity than it resembles the fairness liberals and progressives usually talk about.

I presume that Mr. Right believes in an omnipotent, lawful deity, though he occasionally observes that this potentate's motives are mysterious to man. For him, however, it doesn't follow from his faith that the world is "fair." He may believe the opposite, to the extent that he believes that this world is "fallen" and incapable of fairness without God's grace. When he says that "life's not fair," he offers that as a riposte to someone who wants the world to become more fair. What he means is that we fallible human beings can't make the world as fair as some of us want it to be. This limitation is a matter of scale, since he is often insistent on the need for Major League Baseball to make its rules more fair so that the richest teams don't sign all the best players. A game can be made fair, he might say, while life is intractable.

The difference between Mr. Right and Melissa Harris-Lacewell is that she thinks that an unfair world can be made more fair through political action. "The point is not to assert that the world is just," she writes, "but to help make it so." Notice the change of word at the last moment, though. Justice and fairness may not be synonyms for everybody. I can imagine Mr. Right asserting that the world is not fair (i.e. it doesn't give us what we want) but is just (i.e. there is a cosmic order just the same). That may explain why he seems to regard so many efforts to make society (as opposed to sports) more fair as fundamentally unfair or unjust. The idea of fairness that he denounces, and that Harris-Lacewell prefers, is one defined by people according to their own desires and intellects, not by divine or "natural" law. By the end of her article I agreed with her actual belief that fairness is made, not given, but I was left wondering whether any liberal or progressive person actually holds the faith in fairness she spends most of the piece criticizing. "Fairness" is a word everyone needs to use carefully, whether they think that's fair or not.

No comments: