Written by the Dad
“That’s Not Fair!”
…shouted my toddler son.
My blood ran cold. How…how could he have known? How could one of my greatest parenting fears appear so completely…and so early in my child’s life? Where did he learn that?
Parents share a lot of universal fears in regards to raising their children. When they’re younger we worry about their health. We worry about whether they’ll progress and learn and grow as they should, and worry that they’ll be in any way less “advanced” than the neighbor kids. As they grow we worry that they’ll make poor choices, get bad grades, get into the wrong crowds, take drugs, commit crimes, or become YouTube commenters.
I worry about all of that too but I have one more fear. I’m horrified that my kids will grow up thinking life owes them fairness.
Life’s Not Fair
Of course life isn’t fair, right? This much is obvious. It must be obvious, given how often people say it. Any time actions lead to results that we don’t believe are equitable – but only when this inequity doesn’t favor ourselves – we say life isn’t fair.
I believe the phrase “life’s not fair” is used for a variety of purposes but all of them seem to fall into two categories:
- Things that are completely out of our control like accidents, health failures and natural disasters harming us in some way.
- Perceived inequity which we feel is being pushed upon us by someone else or by an uneven lack of universal karma.
This blog post is concerned entirely with the latter.
Lack of fairness bothers us because we want it but we know we can’t have it. We understand the idea of inherent, universal fairness to be unrealistic, yet we’re always striving to make it happen anyway.
So, what are we striving for, exactly? What is fair?
What Does Fair Even Mean?
Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. Fair isn’t a thing. It’s a relative term, not an absolute term, which is the real reason it doesn’t mean anything yet remains true. Fairness has no anchor point by which to measure its own accuracy. It’s an emotional term which, ironically, is used to gain advantages for whoever can use it most effectively. It’s especially great for politics.
Fairness in Politics
Politicians talk about “what’s fair” a lot, usually in regards to income levels and taxation.
I’ve noticed that no particular levels of taxation are ever mentioned, be it percentages of income nor dollar amounts. After all, why use something measurable when you can just as easily use “fair”? Usually, politicians want people with perceived wealth to pay more. The problem with the target being “more” is that it’s not really a target, and therefore can never be tested for success. That’s not to say “more” taxation is inherently bad, but in not having a target there’s no way to measure whether raising taxes even did anything (outside of our own arbitrary perception). If the taxation goal were reached but the results were underwhelming the politicians would have to admit failure. Since there’s no actual goal – only “more” – politicians can simply say the rate wasn’t high enough and they need “more” again. Constituents can never say their politicians failed, nor can anyone say definitively say that taxation wasn’t the problem. Politicians are smarter than we give them credit for.
Fairness in Money
Regarding income, the phrase that gets tossed around a lot is “Fair pay for a fair day’s work.” This saying makes my skin crawl. Just because a person is working really hard doesn’t mean what they’re doing has any value. If someone doesn’t want to buy a person’s product or service then I would argue not paying the person anything at all would be fair. I cringe when someone tries to justify their worth based entirely on their credentials and experience. Who cares about those things if the product is useless? On the other hand, if an uneducated kid with no experience can solve an important problem for me I’ll be more than happy to pull out my check book. And, if someone else deems their solution to be worth more than I’m willing to pay then by all means, get that paper.
[Side Note: I’ve never heard a rich person (other than politicians) talk about getting paid fairly. My wife and I frequently comment on how most of the successful people we admire at one point lived in their cars and worked for free. Just imagine if they’d have held out for a fair day’s pay. They’d have been poor forever, since the work they were performing didn’t have any value to the market until much later. Is it fair that they now make millions of dollars and have multiple houses and we don’t? Sure, why not?]
Income inequality is always a hot topic in politics. Pointing out differences in classes and acting outraged is a sure way to get elected. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the difference in standard of living between below-the-mean Americans and anyone in a developing country is fair or not.
Fairness in Science (The Capuchin Monkey Experiment)
Lately, “fairness” and “inequality” despite having no tangible meaning, are being treated like they are scientific principles because an experiment has finely been done to confirm it. A few years ago an experiment was performed involving Capuchin monkeys. The results have been almost universally lauded as displaying nature’s natural aversion to inequality. I’ll let the scientist explain it himself:
I have a few problems with how the results are being celebrated…sorry, Freudian slip…reported:
- The “unequal” pay is more unequal than people are giving it credit for. The monkeys weren’t being paid in varying amounts of food, they were paid in completely different types of food. The inequality in pay was a result of paying the Capuchin in different currency. Sure, both rewards were food, but they weren’t even the same family of food; one was fruit, one was a vegetable. If some people were paid in dollars and some were paid in an equivalent amount of some other currency the latter group would still be upset.
- Maybe the monkeys are just acting like toddlers. My kids do this kind of thing all the time. One of them picks up a toy and the other one immediately wants that toy, right now. It doesn’t matter that the floor is covered with thousands of other toys and the purchase value of the toys never enters their minds. What matters is that their sibling has it and now all of a sudden they want it, to the point of tantrums only toddlers and monkeys could perform. Yesterday, that toy didn’t matter. Tomorrow, it will be at the bottom of some toy basket (if they clean up today) and they’ll be arguing over who saw some other toy first. The point is, Capuchin monkeys might be incredibly intelligent, and therefore I would hazard to say they’re a bit irrational as well (I won’t delve into it here, but I highly recommend this entire reading list*). So, maybe their desire for a certain food has nothing to do with the food at all.
- On the other hand, if they’re not highly intelligent why do we care what food they want? And if humans are highly intelligent then what’s the correlation to this study?
Sometimes I think people see class struggle, inequity and unfairness wherever they look for them.
I find it humorous that serious scientists have jumped to a conclusion that nature abhors unfairness based on juvenile behavior of monkeys. Yes, adult humans act like this too but I don’t think that anyone wanting a thing they can’t have means they’re the victim of a violation of some universal standard of equity.
My son used the phrase “that’s not fair,” because he wanted something and didn’t have it while someone else did. That’s all. He hadn’t thought it through farther than the because he didn’t care any more than that. He just wanted a thing and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have it right at that moment. That’s what kids (and Capuchin monkeys?) (also, a lot of adults?) do.
I’ve found most of the time when someone wants a fair deal, they just want more of something they feel they lack. Spoiler alert: we’ll never get there; we always want more stuff. It’s human nature. Not to say that seeking growth and gain is bad thing – quite the opposite; this is how our economy works and it’s a good thing – but seeking it in the name of fairness implies that there is some other party involved which has the ability to give us what we want/need. Without realizing it, this becomes a power struggle. The party that wants a fair deal almost never considers A) the cost to the other party, and therefore B) the additional price they themselves may have to pay, usually in some indirectly-connected way. For example, kids may find it unfair that another kid has a cooler toy, but they don’t consider what cost went into the other kid obtaining it, be it simply money or potential to buy another toy later. They’re oblivious to the idea that to have that toy themselves there might need to be sacrifice. When this is pointed out to them they start screeching like Capuchin monkeys. If only adults’ tantrums were this harmless.
Seeking fairness gives too much power to whomever you’re seeking it from, and proportionally reduces your own power and freedom. The irony of seeking only your own, while neglecting to empathize with the other side of the deal, is that you get less and less of what you want. “There’s no free such thing as a free lunch,” and all that.
Another problem with over-valuing one’s own side of a “fair deal” is the natural inclination to work to a minimum level of what one deems to be fair. If a person feels like their side of a deal is unfair they’re not going to work anymore than they have to. When this is true for members on both sides of the deal (it usually is) the deal itself settles to a minimum level of quality. Rather than either member of the deal experiencing an upside, but sides get what can minimally be considered “fair”. Thus, that level of quality will be as good as it gets.
Once the fairness equilibrium is reached, why try harder ever? It’s already fair. Maybe nobody lost the deal but did anyone win?
If everything in life were categorically equal there would be no way to know what is best, or even what is better. Limited upside is just as dangerous as downside, in my opinion.
I hope my kids never settle for seeking fairness because I don’t want them to feel limited.
Lessons for My Kids
As my kids grow I hope they learn some of the lessons I’m still learning myself:
I hope they realize very quickly that life will never be equal, but that this doesn’t mean life is unfair. There will never be a time when everyone has the same stuff.
I hope they understand relative value as it pertains to what they add to the world. Making yourself valuable is important. If they work hard enough they’ll earn what their efforts are worth, as determined by whoever is buying what they’re selling. If what they’re doing is pointless then not being paid much to do it isn’t unfair. As such, rather than seeking what is fair I hope they seek what is best, as determined by their own standards. In doing so I believe they’re bound to create something of value.
I hope they realize that success isn’t finite no matter how they define it. Just because someone else has achieved more than they have in life doesn’t mean life is unfair, nor that any less success is available to themselves. As such, I hope rather than envying people who have more they should learn how those people succeeded and learn from it. They’ll no doubt learn that success comes with great effort and struggle.
I hope they know life won’t be easy and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Seeking to obtain the best will include a struggle. That’s a good thing. Sometimes the best way to learn is by struggling, failing and falling. Falling is painful, but I hope they can make the best of it appreciate the lessons learned, as opposed to feeling that life has been unfair to them.
I hope they realize that struggles they face generally come from the inertia of life, and not people or groups of people trying to bring them down. There may be the occasional person who decides they don’t like them, but this will be rare. Nobody cares about you more than you (and your parents) do. It’s too much work for them and they have their own struggles.
I hope whatever difficulties they face will help them empathize with others and will encourage them to overcome so they can help those around them.
I hope they appreciate when life is good. If my kids have food on the table, a roof over their heads and adequate health they have more than enough tools to strive for what they want in life. That is a huge advantage that the majority of the world does not have. Is that fair? I don’t know, but I hope they can be thankful for it and use their blessings and privileges for good.
*Sutherland doesn’t know me or endorse anything I’m saying.