Posted by: dacalu | 26 April 2011

Fairness

When I was young, my father told me on numerous occasions that, “the world is not fair.”  I, being an idealist, desperately wanted fairness.  I thought that the world should be a certain way and anything else must be unjust and somehow fixable.  Now that I’m a little older, I get suspicious anytime someone tells me how the world should be, and I take an especially close look when I think that.  This isn’t to say that some things are unjust, but I’ve gained humility in judgment.

So let us begin with the basics.  The world is not fair.  Some people are richer than others, better connected, and have more opportunities.  Those are things that could theoretically be addressed in a meaningful way, if not fixed completely.  Of course historically, that sort of equilibration hasn’t been practicable.  We experience the world as unfair economically.

Some people are smarter than others, healthier, stronger, more beautiful, or more talented.  In a hundred ways, we can see that some have been gifted in ways that others are not.  One might be tempted (being an idealist) to say that those gifts must balance out in the end.  “Well, he’s pretty, but not too bright.”  “She’s an amazing pianist, but blind as a bat.”  Alas, that really doesn’t hold up to examination.  I have known people who suffered the load of birth defects, uncaring families, and little talent, and others blessed with brains, beauty, and luck.  The world is not fair and I think we do ourselves a disservice pretending that it is.  After all, if the world is fair and things aren’t going well, it must somehow be your own fault.  This is the fatal flaw of the “even playing field” in economics, “standardized testing” in education, “natural law” in ethics, and dogma in religion.  We don’t all come to the world with the same cards and it would be unkind to presume that we did.

The world, then, is not fair, whether or not it should be.

Let us then ask, if it should be fair.  There seem to be two options here: the world is not yet fair because we haven’t acted or the world is not yet fair because God hasn’t acted.  Let us deal with the second option first.  Christians think that God is acting in the world and that the world is as God made it.  We doubt neither God’s agency nor God’s good will – so the reason for the unfairness is not God’s failure to act.  Many Christians posit that God is working out a fair universe slowly.  I have some sympathy for this (especially as CS Lewis constructs it, with God waiting for us to sort our own business out before stepping in). Alas, it leaves itself open to at least two very dangerous ideas.  On the one hand, God will fix everything (literally Deus ex machina) by stepping in at the last minute.  We don’t have to worry about the environment, or just government for that matter, because God will fix it all in the end.  Jesus seemed pretty clear that we have earthly obligations, so I’m not buying God as the last minute fixer.  On the other hand, a waiting God is open to the very serious anti-theist critique if God is all-good and all-powerful why hasn’t God’s purpose come to fruition yet.  God must be inefficient, lazy, or just apathetic for it to be taking so long.  An all powerful deity should be able to do anything instantaneously, ergo any time is too much time.  I think it’s a reasonable critique.  I cannot, then, agree that God is slowly or gradually or sporadically making the world a fair place.  I think God wills the world as it is.  How else could it >be< as it is?

[For those of you who like philosophy, this follows the lines of Leibniz’ argument that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.”  Process theologians counter that we create the world with God, but I think they do so at the expense of omnipotence; I’m not willing to go there.]

Let us now assess the idea that the world should be fair, but we have not made it so.  It’s a lovely idea.  It’s a beautiful idea.  It makes my idealist heart warm.  Alas, I’m not really able to make it into a Biblical idea.  Nowhere does Jesus say “blessed are the equilibrators, for they shall achieve equity.”
No “blessed is the common man, for he shall be uncommonly blessed.”  Instead, he says, “the poor will always be with you,” and “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

Idealists want to make the way of the world fair, but God never asked that of us.  God asked us, rather, to choose an entirely different way – to love everyone, in spite of differences.  More than that, God asked us particularly to love those who were most different, least privileged, and least blessed.

Let me be clear.  If God is the giver of all good gifts, we are to love those least gifted, those least blessed.  Loving Christians more because they are “better” people is transparently wrong, but loving anyone less because they are less blessed by God is anti-Christian.  We are told to love and serve those to whom the world – and perhaps even God – have been unfair.

And here’s the rub.  We should love and serve all people.  In love, we cannot favor rich or poor, friend or enemy, neighbor or foreigner.  In service, we must.  Parents of children with physical and mental challenges end up spending more time with them than they do with their other children.  Teachers often spend more time with exceptional students (be they exceptionally quick or exceptionally dull) than with average students.  It’s not a sign of greater love, but it is a sign of greater need or greater opportunity.  At the personal level there can be no question of equality – every person demands a personal response.

Governments, including the US, have used fairness as a way to provide the maximum good to the society.  I like that.  Pragmatically fairness, equality, and inalienable rights give us stable and productive social structures.  More than that, they maximize freedom of conscience.  Each individual has the right to behave as he or she wills without fear or favor from the government.  Let us never forget that that freedom is a fair opportunity to be unfair.  It is a chance for Christians to favor the poor and the outcast – just as it is a chance for narcissists to favor themselves.

Fairness can never replace compassion.  Equality is a value of the world, a good value and a great opportunity, but we must never mistake it for a Christan value.  Compassion is a value of Christ, the kind of compassion that treats every person personally.

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