The Fairness Fixation

Sunday, July 23, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Is It

Imagine that your eight-year-old son arrives home boasting that he won the race that day in gym class. Right as your heart begins to swell with pride, he reveals that he wasn’t the only winner—the whole class won the race. The gym teacher, it turns out, thought that naming just one winner would be unfair. If our obsession with fairness leads to absurdities like this, why should we be so committed to being fair? Why not reserve the best we have to offer for those who actually deserve it? Can there be justice, kindness, and compassion in a world without fairness? John and Ken play favorites with Stephen Asma from Columbia College Chicago, author of Against Fairness: In Favor of Favoritism.

Listening Notes

John and Ken argue whether or not a fixation on fairness flattens out differences in merit. John draws some distinctions among situations that render equal treatment. He offers that fairness may not adequately apply to all situations. 

John and Ken are joined by Stephen Asma, author of Against Fairness and Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. Stephen looks at the history of nepotism and argues that it has only recently become a problem. He also takes a broad view, in particular toward how contemporary Chinese people often prioritize the family in their ethical decisions, which factors into their understanding of nepotism. Stephen further explores the basis of these preferences in our biological nature. 

But John asks: even if these preferences might be rooted in our nature, should we not consider whether they are right or wrong? Ken also wonders if we should criticize fairness, given that we live in a historical moment where we suffer from many inequalities. Stephen responds that these inequalities will not be resolved by resorting to claims for fairness, but rather through actions that may require certain forms of preferential treatment. Returning to more philosophical questions, John asks Stephen to respond to Rawls’s concepts of society and justice in fairness.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:21): Natalie Jones looks at nepotism and interviews the son of Saul Bellow, Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History. She also looks at the negative effects of nepotism in business.

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:32): Ian Shoales pokes fun at how certain powerful families have influenced and exerted their control over societies.