Fairness: Fun With Myth And Dishonesty

The Unbalanced Scales of FairnessOn Friday, Scott Adams put up an interesting post called “Fairness“, wherein he puts to task the average person’s concept of what “fair” means. To illustrate his point that peoples’ basic idea of fairness is deluded, he uses the analogy of splitting ten marbles between two youngsters. The question is, how do you properly divide those marbles? From his post:

Is five marbles apiece actually fair?

Don’t you need to know how many marbles each kid already owns? What if one kid has a thousand and the other has none? The marginal utility of an extra marble is much higher for the marble-poor kid.

Doesn’t their different level of enthusiasm for marbles come into play?

I agree with is analysis of the complexity of fairness. The calculation of absolute fairness would involve identifying and quantifying a nearly infinite number variables. Variables even if they could be known, would be extremely difficult to assign a logical value. Even if you could know with certainty the levels of enthusiasm of each child, how much weight would you assign it? Whatever value you assign would be heavily influenced on your own biases regarding the importance of enthusiasm in your life.

What bothers me about Adams’ post is his acceptance of fairness as a necessary evil, a calculation quickly arrived at by “morons” for the ease of doing business. (“Morons” is his word; he is often condescending, I guess that’s part of his appeal. Don’t think for a minute that I think you, dear reader, are a moron. And I don’t have time to check into rehab for a slip of the tongue. ;) ) I don’t think fairness should ever be used as the reason for any decision. It’s a crutch, and one easily cast off.

Instead of using phrases like “we’ll do such-and-such because it’s fair” or “level the playing field“, I’d love it if people would be more accurate and say instead “it works best with our shared biases” or “we like the idea of altering the current biases be more in favor of one group over another.” My set of phrases is more honest. (Which is why these phrases will never been uttered by any politician, ever. Unless I become one… and I don’t see that happening.) Fairness is just a facade used by people to mask their self interest. And our society hates any discernible displays self interest for some illogical reason. (Which is why every model claims it was somebody else that submitted that first, career-launching headshot.)

Whenever you hear one group of people arguing for something on the basis of fairness and you have another group arguing for an opposing thing on the basis of fairness, you can trust that the end result will not be “fair”. There will be a shift in bias in favor of one group, likely at expense of the other. (Or perhaps nothing will happen. Which might be argued as fairer than either option.)

Rest assured if your boss begins discussing things with you in terms of fairness, you’re about to be laid off. Or he’s just eliminated this year’s bonuses. Hey, he can’t afford both his and your bonus this year, and you expecting one in spite of poor corporate performance would be unfair to the shareholders. (Man I love being a independent consultant.) But I digress.

So I move we abolish the terms “fair” and “fairness” from our language, except when referring to the cost of a taxi, or waxing poetic about the aesthetics of a love interest. Straightforwardness and honesty is the best policy. It’s the marker of good management in any business. It should be the hallmark of a great politician.

(Don’t you just love how managed to completely avoid saying inherently political? :) )

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