Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunces : Michigan State University Student Feminists”


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.


13 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunces : Michigan State University Student Feminists”

  1. It seems to me that the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights addresses the issues of fairness and injustices pretty well. The legal system in the USA is also supposed to but sometimes fails miserably. Yes, I like the concept of the inalienable right of individuals being entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Otherwise, everything else is negotiable. Is it fair that everybody isn’t paid the same regardless of their skills or education? “Fairness” is a slippery slope and those that continue to whine about it should think about growing up.

  2. Thanks, EC. I had occasion to live among a fairly homogeneous people who came quite close to modeling “fairness” within their culture until they went to war with peoples who not only played different games, but who were able to break rules or ignore them without suffering dire consequences, and who turned out not to be, as expected, inferior. Had Japan remained in its cocoon, nearly everyone born to agreed-upon versions of the same game, leading lives that led step by step (they even call it an essu-ka-lay-tah) to a life of safety and security for them and their families, the people on the planet most unlike them could not have forcibly introduced their “ludic fallacy”. Economic pressures ensured the escalators would no longer work for most of the people most of the time. But some things stuck — the rules passed from generation to generation, played from birth, the game accommodating itself to a new kind of society — even in this highly competitive culture: if you followed the rules, found positive consensus rather than negative compromise no matter how long it took (and without any affirmative action), most people came out satisfied most of the time. Huge changes appear to have caused social and psychological upheavals but that has affected individuals more than the basic culture. Beneath that veneer of copying, say, Western ways, the culture maintains its version of the upside down ludic fallacy: the game is set first and on a level playing field, and the real-life situations model the game. Who knows what will happen if the family structure is broken up, the education system unsystematized so that the rules are lost and nothing is “fair” anymore, as is the American reality. The game in all its myriad versions continues to provide a measure of stability for the Japanese. Meanwhile, American life offers new games, especially one called “Risk” and that is a sore temptation to anyone who has the courage to jump off a moving escalator.

    • Penn, Does the “model of fairness” in Japan extend to females and persons of other nationalities. What may appear to be fair to one group may not be to another.

      This point struck me. . . “if you followed the rules, found positive consensus rather than negative compromise no matter how long it took (and without any affirmative action), most people came out satisfied most of the time.”

      If most people (the majority) who are satisfied most of the time are the same people then it stands to reason that lock step adherence to rules would be promoted and passed down as the legacy social contract. This is the kind of thinking that leads all great civilization’s to fall.

      • Chris, I know it’s hard to grasp from a Western pov, especially since it doesn’t appear much on the surface. I’ll try approaching from another angle than “fairness” and deal with the concept of “freedom.” Edwin Reischauer, a leading scholar of Asian cultures and history, and U.S. Ambassador to Japan in the first half of the 60s, interpreted the culture as triple-layered: the outer layer as plastic (pliant, adaptable, colorful, cheerful, game-playing, inventive, original, creative… I forget the actual words but it meant in today’s terms that the drive to accommodate others, including copying the ways to success of other cultures (not their own Korean-identified minority, no; nor do we), is paramount and is therefore what is encouraged and shown to the world. The middle layer is simplest. It is represented by steel and equates to workaholism including traits like strength, toughness, durability, dignity, honor, loyalty, what is called “face,” whatever is needed to do one’s job, support the family and the society.

        With just those first two layers you get what appears to be a dichotomy: the norm in the U.S. could be say, students who live away from home, play around all through college, studying just enough to get by or a lot as they choose, take a year off, perhaps changing majors, deciding on grad school or finding a job after graduation, changing jobs and apartments and cities, marrying and divorcing by choice or circumstance. This is freedom. It is also constant risk, not least for loneliness. For the average Japanese (and I repeat, this has changed, loosened up? in recent years as the world grows smaller, but is still the “way” where possible) there is that escalator which one may ride virtually from birth to death — but it is not compulsory and if one succeeds at something original or independent or, today, outside the country, then there is pride and no stigma attached. Whether you have an income or not, you have both preventive medicine and virtually free full health care services. The average student is rigorously tested from a very young age not only for skills and suitability but also for where he is most satisfied.

        (Again, this is something we would see as a compromise and loss of freedom in a Japanese schoolchild (and most definitely, they learn by rote to begin with — there is no other way to inculcate the two basic subjects: mathematics and the far-more-complicated-than-English Japanese language. Art begins at home, in infancy and music (mostly for girls). The most important lesson of early childhood is to learn how to learn and it serves them well. As far as freedom goes, it is difficult to know where the desire to please merges with the ambition to go in another direction, but they do merge. School is intense, in class, in sport. For most, the same classmates you had as a child, will be at your wedding or funeral or you at theirs; frequently friends really are for life. Long before high school, you will know whether you will be going to university or take over the family shop or be a rock musician or and head in that direction on the escalator at that level. University looks like America, only more so. Sudden freedom to drink, enjoy new company, pick up the latest activities, wear what you like, yell and be crazy. You have the security of living at home, knowing your future is assured. But the day you graduate — and I witnessed this many times — a stunning (to me every time) transformation takes place and the image of “salaryman” is born. Not so easy anymore, but still pretty common to one extent or another, the corporation (most highly diversified) you work for will help you upwards or sideways, provide housing, wedding & honeymoon accommodations, vacation places, a immense choice of courses and other directions to go within the company, assistance with education for your children, bi-annual bonuses, pension, etc. If you are an alcoholic and refuse treatment, you will be placed in a job where you can do minimal harm. Are you beginning to understand that it is a tradeoff; that the definition of “freedom” can be greater on either side — to put it simply, it is a matter of whether you have full security, a firm and safe base, preventive health care that means much more than curative, a welcoming home and a continuing role in the family until you marry, and still have room to change and grow. If you want to finish school in another country, emigrate. Then, taking the basic traits of plastic and steel along, you will adopt a new culture but also another definition of freedom.

        Whether you remain on the escalator or not — to return to Reischauer’s idea of the layered psyche — the inner core remains: it is known as bamboo. The traits are that of a spirit that is quick to grow, versatile, able to weather the strongest typhoon, repair and regenerate itself, it is long-lived, and most importantly, is rooted in the earth. Most Japanese, however city-bred, are tied by some family connection to a piece of land somewhere, however small, a place regenerate. (Loss of such places, perhaps owned by an elderly couple, also meant loss for the extended family) So there are two “homelands,” one to live in, the other at heart. A spiritual security.

        I have roughed this out so that you might see just one difference, that of the meaning and feeling of freedom that is in many ways the opposite of our own. It is the same dichotomy that appears when you use “lockstep” for an inborn sense of organization, cooperation and ease of movement through life. I can’t fault American usage of the term. All most of us have seen of Japan is where those qualities led in wartime. It is in that nature, the steel part, that competition in business is seen, literally, as war today. And there is shame as well, so much so that the history books lack the substance of two decades, and where there is substance, there are lies and half-truths. (This kind of cultural self-censorship was easier to recognize and correct here: I understand the Chinese are coming up for their turn soon.) It is undeniable that racism and sexism both exist within this base. Again, the United States and Japan have a negative commonality. Although the origins of Japan’s main minority were those of a victorious series of wars with Korea rather than the conscription of slaves, there is a devastating comparison that can be made in both cultures regarding the treatment of racial/ethnic minorities rationalized as inferior so many generations ago, the result is groups who have criminalized themselves in order to survive, and are today on the verge of permanent enmity.

        “Sexist” and unfair as it may remain in the eyes of the West, the charge of housewifery is very likely to cast off its negative connotation in Japan. The ingrained and complicated system of sexism in Japan did not break down from the inside, though the idea of “feminism” did take root in a mild form; rather, it began breaking down in the 70s when the necessity for women to maintain certain places in society was no longer practical. This is the same thing that happened in the 50s in the U.S. when money and household appliances and a booming economy — and the memory of Rosie the Riveter was still alive and kicking. The difference is that in Japan, they didn’t just get up and go. The responsibilities of motherhood, first, then wifehood and care for the grandparents (as your children and grandchildren will care for you?) has precluded any mass exodus. The two parent home with the mother carrying out significant responsibility with concomitant respect and assistance is the ideal aimed for. Many women would like that option in other “feminist” countries. But fairness reaches into the home as well, and the processes are being outsourced and assisted more all the time. There is still a dualism in the culture — promoted some years ago, in fact, by a respected politician in high office, as a role model for all Japanese men, a man who bragged about beating his wife. Who ever heard of a national leader giving that sort of bad example to his citizens!

        Racism, however, will continue confrontational most likely with those of Korean ancestry, others come on temporary work visas are aware that they will take the money and leave – this is still a homogeneous culture based on a homogeneous society in which those of foreign extraction may never be fully accepted. That includes Americans. Pragmatically speaking, there are 126 million people on a total land area of four islands comprising about 141,000 square miles, and those of Japanese ancestry are 98.5% of the population In this country there is NO homogeneous majority population: the “White European” count at 72.4% of the nation turns out to comprise at least seven different cultures from disparate nations immigrating in different centuries; spread over 3.8 million miles. What works in Japan is no more workable here than it would be the other way round, in spite of the Japanese “plastic” ability to accept and absorb new ideas.

        When things change in Japan, that’s it; the change will be well thought out and planned for the whole society and everyone will (or nearly everyone will eventually) accept it. That’s only fair, and that’s why things change very, very slowly.

  3. Interesting point of view. I particularly liked the comment . . .”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.” The most salient point is embodied in the last sentence.

    I don’t see life as a game. If it is to be a game, that implies that there only winners and also rans. As EC points out, in a “game” fairness dictates that we all agree to the rules upfront but what is left out in that assumption is that such an agreement is only valid if all participants had an equal say in the creation of the rules. If the rules permit one group to use special resources while denying access to another until the denied group amasses a certain number of “points” then denied group can never achieve winning status until they sublimate themselves to unfair rules just to get a chance at winning. It is the creation of rules to promote “fairness” that underlie societal unfairness.

    I view life as a series of discrete transactions with but one rule to ensure fairness; everyone has the right to not enter into the transaction. Transactional rules are adopted by the relevant players at the time of the transaction whether you are deciding to offer friendship to another, applying for a job, or negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal. If you cannot agree to a set of rules then you choose to walk away and evaluate a different transaction. If you don’t get to choose to opt out of a transaction then it can be challenged as unfair.

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