It’s Not Fair

“It’s not fair!”

Every parent has heard those words. “He got a bigger piece than me. It’s not fair!” “She got to stay up later than me. It’s not fair!” “Casey jumped in line again. It’s not fair!”

We bring it on ourselves. We teach our children this concept called fairness. We do so for noble reasons. We want them to share, to wait their turn, to obey the rules. The implicit and explicit promise of fairness is if they share, wait, or obey, no one will be advantaged over another. Everyone will have the same, will have what they want. Everyone will get a turn, everyone will follow the rules.

We teach fairness because even 4-year-olds understand it. It sets in place a worldview that values the rule of law, values everyone getting something they want.

But in the complexity of adult life, fairness is a childish tool.

As we get older, even long before adulthood, we encounter situations that are not fair. Having to take your little brother along when you go to play with your friends is not fair. Teachers playing favorites is not fair. Enduring bullies, playing with cheaters, having friends with cooler stuff, all these things are not fair. And when you question your parents about the unfairness of it all, what do they say?

“Who said life was fair?”

Well, uh, you did.

This lack of fairness breeds bitterness and anger. You feel betrayed and discontent. But you do not abandon fairness, You simply demand it in hurtful ways, in ways that make necessary suffering.

If I don’t get to go to the movies, then neither do you.

I had to sit through your dumb recital now you have to watch my play.

Fairness comes to mean tit for tat, meaness for meaness, hurt for hurt.

And what is lost?


I suppose fairness is a sort of juvenile justice, justice in its infancy. This is fine for children. The problem is that children become adults and many never let fairness grow up, they never move from fairness to justice.

You can see the perpetual attachment to fairness in the petty cruelties we inflect on one another. You get cut off on the freeway so further down you don’t let someone else merge. An anniversary is forgotten, that means a week of the silent treatment. I was wronged so I get to wrong someone else.

It’s only fair.

You can see it in the our public life as well. Welfare isn’t fair, I have to work and so should they and they better suffer every minute on the job.

It’s MY tax money so I should get to say what YOU can and cannot buy with food stamps. I’m paying for public housing so if I say pee in a cup, then you better pee in a cup.

It’s only fair.

But is it just?

In order for an act to be just, it must be more than fair. It must be respectful and aware. It must take into account mitigating circumstances. It must balance the rights of the individual against the good of society. It must be in accord with and/or take into consideration the values and ethics of all involved.

Justice is hard

A boy kills his father. The fair thing is for the boy to lose his life as well. But what if killing the father was the only way to stop the father from molesting the daughter or beating the mother? Would taking the boy’s life be just?

Justice is hard.

Justice is sacrifice and letting go of personal hurt and valuing people and things outside of yourself and bigger than yourself. Justice is owning fallibility. Justice is accepting the consequences of your actions and taking responsibility for the actions of others. Justice is binding wounds.

Justice is hard.


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