How Do We Define Fairness in an Unfair World?

How many times have you heard your child utter the words “no fair”?  We’ve all likely uttered the phrase a few times in our own adult lives, but there’s nothing like your child looking up at you with wide, innocent eyes and calling something unfair to make you wonder just how you can explain the concept for his or her young mind. Do you simply say, “Well, life’s not fair” or do you try to differentiate between truly unjust situations and the sometimes, natural human feeling that we need to assign blame to someone or something when things don’t go exactly our way?

The concept of fairness is interesting because it seems to mean slightly different things to different people.  From a strictly semantics point of view, the dictionary defines the word fair as “free from bias, dishonesty or injustice”. Given that definition, it seems that fairness is like that old courtroom argument about obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.” In terms of teaching kids about fairness, I think most parents want their children to behave in a just and unbiased way, while expecting the same treatment from others. On the other hand, it makes sense to prepare them for the injustices they will surely encounter in their lives.

Fairness is a concept that is also being hotly debated in our country right now in regard to the income gap, taxes and the Occupy Wall Street movement. On one side of the debate, protesters decry the fact that 1% of the country is controlling the majority of wealth and therefore, has the most influence in elections, that by defining corporations as “people”, the Supreme Court allowed unprecedented amounts of anonymous dollars to be funneled into the political process and that Wall Street is responsible for much of the country’s economic woes. On the other side, the argument is that much of this is normal in a capitalistic, free market society, that one must only work hard to reap financial benefits and that the protesters are just jealous of those who have been successful. Ok, I admit that I may have simplified the arguments a bit, but in general, I think it points to the need to differentiate between true injustice and a feeling that if things don’t go your way, there must be someone or something to blame.

So how do we tell the difference? Following the “I’ll know when I see it” concept, I came up with a few examples that I think illustrate the difference between unfairness and “whining”. Only one of these is political; the rest will likely be relatable to any suburban parent.

1)    The fact that Mitt Romney made lots and lots of money over the years is fair (although, the ways in which Bain Capital helped him make that money, may not have been). The fact that he only paid 13.9% in taxes last year, while Americans who make far, far less than he does paid much more is patently unfair.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that our current system, which allows these tax loopholes to exist is both unfair and obscene (I know both unfairness AND obscenity when I see them!). If it’s true that in America, anyone who works hard can achieve, then why do hard-working people, putting in 5 days per week, 8 hours per day or more at jobs that pay less than $50K per year pay more tax than a multi-millionaire and struggle to make ends meet?  Not fair.

2)    If a teacher assigns a school project and clearly states that it must be neat, well-formatted and creative, in addition to having satisfactory content, then assigns a lower-than desired grade because the project is messy, hard to read or clearly demonstrates a lack of effort, that’s fair. If the teacher (assuming that this is any class other than art) assigns a lower-than desired grade because the project was not professionally (i.e. required $$ to be spent) printed and bound, artistically brilliant and showed obvious evidence of parental involvement, that’s not fair. We all know the parents who work more on the look and feel of their children’s school projects than the kids do, and a higher grade should never be assigned because some parent forked up the money to go to Kinkos or spent 40 hours helping their kid cut, paint and decorate.

3)    It’s perfectly fair that celebrities who have aged well go on TV to talk about their exercise and eating regimens and how these things have helped them stay young. It’s totally unfair for celebrities who have been constantly airbrushed and cosmetically enhanced to go on TV and talk about how well they have aged, without acknowledging the helpful and expensive tools that made it possible.

4)    It’s perfectly fair for a youth soccer team to beat another youth soccer team by a score of 10-0.  Hopefully, the winning team, after reaching, let’s say five goals, has the sportsmanship to move their players around, let defenders play offense, etc… in an attempt not to “cream” or humiliate the other team.  What’s not fair is when overly competitive coach-parents rig the system so they can stack a team, thereby creating a situation in which every game played has a similar outcome. I know that AYSO and all of those other youth sports organizations have systems in place so this doesn’t happen, but somehow, it always does.

Those are just a few examples but of course, there are a million more. And let’s be real: most of these, save the first example, are not devastating. The truly senseless injustice that abounds in the world  is even more difficult to explain to our kids – why some children suffer from absolute poverty while others have so much, why some are born into war-torn countries where they will never know a feeling of safety, while others live in peace.  These are the hardest to talk to your kids about because there is just no explanation for why some children in the world are orphaned, why some are destined to be child soldiers for an African warlord, why natural disasters or school shootings or so many other terrible things happen to innocent people.

What unfair situations make you tear your hair out?  And how do you explain them to your kids? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “How Do We Define Fairness in an Unfair World?

  1. I like the idea but…..and this is one big one…you seem to equate fairness with sympathy. “Creaming” another team during a game because your players practice more or want it more is not unfair. Sympathy or empathy, how every you wish to recognize it…is different. You feel a level of pity for the less prepared so you lower your personal standards to not point out their obvious flaws…..

    Sympathy and fair are different.

    As for taxaxtion…instead of saying it is UNFAIR that you have to pay “X” ammount and someone else pays “Y”. It is not unfair the difference, it is not their fault that they are punished less. What is unfair is that YOU are punished more. It would be like a prisoner who was innocent finding it unfair for others to walk free. Their soulution? To improsen everyone else. So instead of seeking freedom from the system, they find satisfaction in the punishment being shared by everyone.

    Misery loves company.

    We are hoping to break that mindset…..

    I think it would be great if you joined our conversation


    1. Thanks for your comments, Brandon. My point with the soccer example was actually that it was “fair” to beat another team 10-0 for the exact reasons you state – if you practice more, happen to be better, etc… However, in many youth sports organizations, such as AYSO, many parents become unnecessarily competitive and if they volunteer to coach often they end up “working” the system so they can get an unusual number of highly-ranked players on their team. This is absolutely antithetical to what some of those youth sports organizations are all about and in the case of AYSO, in particular, they have a ranking system wherein, supposedly, all teams get a certain number of “10” players, “1” players and several in-between. In terms of the comment about hoping the other team would recognize that when they are “creaming” another team, it’s good sportsmanship to maybe mix it up and play a bit more defensively, this is definitely more what I would call sympathy. I recognize the difference. As for the taxation issue, I disagree slightly. The reason some people pay less is because they are able to take advantage of loopholes in the system that I think should be eliminated/regulated, so that the system is fair for everyone. Therefore it is unfair on both counts – that they pay less and someone else earning less money pays more. I suppose these folks could step up and say “Hey, this system is unfair and I’m not going to use these loopholes”, but let’s be real…no one will actually do that. I will check out your blog/site and comment if I get some time. Thanks again!


      1. As for taxes. I guess it comes to a philosophical debate, if you feel your personal earnings can be spent better by you or Government.


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