Engineering my mind a little every day.


You know how when you buy a particular type or color of car, all of a sudden you start to notice a lot of the same type or color car out on the roads driving around? For reasons I won’t go into, I’ve been thinking a lot about fairness recently and just as if I’d bought a new car, I’ve noticed fairness popping up in every day life all around me in various ways. There is the classic (I have heard this multiple times in the last couple of weeks), “Life isn’t fair” but also the much more subtle ways fairness plays a role in the way people operate every day. For example, fairness is the underlying reason why people stand in lines at the store or coffee shop or why if you give candy to one of your two kids, clearly you’ve got to give some to the other.

But these are just examples in the abstract of what we think of as fairness (or lack thereof) in practice – it doesn’t tell us what it actually is. Naturally, we can start with the dictionary definition which is (using Google):

Impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.

e.g. “Part of my role is to ensure fairness to all parties”

As a technical definition, this is ok – nothing stands out as egregious at first glance. But I would argue this definition is largely worthless because it is subjective to the point of being facile – it is neat and apparently comprehensive but only because it completely ignores the true complexities of the issues. That is, it doesn’t tell us anything about what is impartial, “just treatment or behavior”, favoritism or discrimination. All of which are vast topics in their own right and highly subjective and fungible across cultures and time.

So I move on from the dictionary and posit my own definition. To be clear, this is an assertion weakly held – I’m stating it is true until anyone provides evidence it is not.

Fairness is a concept that is only manifested in peoples lives as an agreement between people to do things a particular way.

For the sake of speaking succinctly to this definition, I’ll call this The Agreement Definition. Note that I am not saying that all agreements between people are fair, only that for fairness to exist there must be an agreement between people. That is, all agreements are not fair but all fairness is arrived at through agreement. Let’s test this idea.

I arrived at this hypothesis by pondering the two examples above: “Life isn’t fair” and “people standing in line at a coffee shop” so that seems as good place to start as any. The Agreement Definition certainly holds up when measured against the question “Is life fair?” because “life” is not an agreement between people in any shape or form. In fact, viewed from that perspective, the whole question is a bit non-sensical which follows if you asked, “what would it take or mean for life to be fair?” I would argue, we can’t conceive what that life looks like which is why we say “life isn’t fair”.

People standing in line at a coffee shop however, is in fact an implicit agreement between everyone at the coffee shop to operate that way – to stand in line to get coffee. The counterfactual proves the point – if Herb walks into the coffee shop and five people are in line but Herb walks directly to the front of the line, no one in the shop would believe that what Herb was doing was ok or fair. He would have violated everyones expectation that the agreed upon protocol is to wait in line. Herb may get away with it but he broke the agreement and no one would believe he acted fairly.

The Agreement Definition appears to hold up in a myriad of cases I could think of. Markets and economies, employment, government programs, diplomacy, court decisions and host of other things that make up our society are all the aggregate of many agreements between people. And these are things that produce outcomes for what we call fair or not. The word fair and the concept in general just simply does not seem to apply unless people are involved in an agreement.

Why is this important? Well, I’m not sure I can justify the idea as necessarily important in and of itself beyond the importance one would lend to general philosophy. But it does help me in this way: if you buy The Agreement Definition of fairness, then we can see that fairness never applies to things beyond the control of people. Or more specifically, it never applies beyond a group of people that have the will, power and capability to make and enforce an agreement. What does that imply? That all unfairness in the world that is within the capability of humans to control, we simply do not have the will or power to do so. Of course, one could argue endlessly about what is actually within our ability and people do.

But real-life complexities aside, simply put, I find this a useful concept: that fairness can only apply to things people can control and therefore agree upon. Nothing else should or even can be labeled as fair. I think this definition of fairness helps me understand the world better and for that, I’m grateful for the circumstances that led me to it.

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