Here’s the always provocative Extradimensional Cephalopod, discussing the core ethics value of fairness in his Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Dunces: Michigan State University Student Feminists:
…Anyone who says that a situation in life is not fair is committing what Nasssim Nicholas Taleb called in his book The Black Swam the “ludic fallacy.” That is, treating real life as though it were a game, with a bounded range of outcomes. The way I’m using the term “ludic fallacy”, it also includes assuming that everyone agreed to rules coming in.
Where do you start defining if a race is fair? Do you start with everyone following the rules? Do you start with everyone having the same amount of free time to practice? Do you start with everyone having the same environment to practice in? Being born with the same physiology? Having the same opportunity costs in their life? Having the same psychological predilection for diligence? Where do we stop?
If you wanted to make things perfectly fair, you’d make everyone perfectly the same, or you would account for every difference and statistically measure their relative skills. But what are we measuring? Their bodies? Their brains? Their will? At some point it becomes a simple scientific fact who is more skilled and fit on average, which defeats the point of the game! The game is supposed to be the process by which we find out who would win, and the fun is in not being able to tell beforehand.
No, we need to stop at the beginning of the game. Everyone agreed to the rules going in; they knew the possible outcomes, and they accepted them. If the rules are followed, then it’s “fair.”
Life, however, is not fair. There are no limits to what can happen in life, there are no rules, and nobody agrees to the lack of terms going in. Stuff happens. It doesn’t really matter where we are relative to each other, but where we are relative to where we were. Unless we’re talking about establishing a set of rules for the benefit of society, we can’t say that a particular situation is “fair” because the term has no meaning as far as life is concerned.
Likewise, if one says that a person “deserves” something, what they really mean is that society would be better off if there was a general principle where people with the same characteristic as that person get that thing as a consequence of their actions or character.
That may be true, but when most people say that, they don’t take into account that to enforce that principle, other people have to put in their own effort. Yes, people deserve to have good things happen to them, but do they deserve to have other people make that happen? Possibly, but to what degree? We can’t make rules about many of these “deserving” characteristics, so we have to rely on empowering people to feel free to help each other spontaneously. That’s where I come in.