All my life, I’ve heard people say, “Life [or the world] isn’t fair.” It’s generally preceded or followed by some variation on, “Quit whining.” The fairness of life or the world has always puzzled me; why isn’t it fair? Or is it fair? And what in blazes does “fair” mean, anyway. With the recent (high summer of 2011) crusade against Wall Street, capitalism, private property, and wealth of any sort save that which is distributed by the government, “fair” has become a battle cry. All the protesters want, they say, is fairness – a fair shake – a fair share.
The most common answer to their battle cry has been the old bromide that life isn’t fair, so quit whining and go back to class. Still, no one that I have heard has addressed the definition of fair, its operative principles, its moral relevance, or even the possibility that it doesn’t exist.
Reckon that leaves it up to me.
Let’s start with some dictionary definitions. I will focus on definitions of the word that relate to the subject of life’s fairness. I will not address other usage, such as a county fair, a fair wind, fair game, fair ball, fair hair, etc..
1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice: a fair decision; a fair judge.
2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules: a fair
Now from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
6 . a : marked by impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or
favoritism fair person to do business with> b (1) : conforming with the
established rules : allowed (2) : consonant with merit or importance : due
…and the Macmillan online dictionary, which seems to think that using a word in a sentence constitutes a definition:
1. If a situation is fair, everyone is treated equally and in a reasonable way.
2. Reasonable and morally right.
Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary online:
1. …in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate…
A. Just or appropriate under the circumstances.
B. As an adverb - without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage
Look at this crap! No wonder American kids don’t know fair from a road apple. Every one of these dictionaries has some subjective slant or assumption of moral judgment. There are two cardinal rules of definition: (1) You can’t use a word to define itself; that is the fallacy of tautology. It is not epistemologically valid to say, “Fair is just. And what is just? Just is fair. And what is fair…?” It goes on and on, but never says anything. Just like most professors. (2) You can’t use high-level abstractions to define other high-level abstractions. Consider this example using algebra. The statement, X = Y may be true, but if you expect anyone to be able to use your equation, you have to make it known that Y = 4A + 5C + D. In the original statement, both X and Y are abstractions, so saying they are equal is meaningless unless Y is defined in detail. Look at how all of these dictionaries used these two fallacies with abandon.
Item 1 from Dictionary.com uses two huge abstractions, “dishonesty” and, “injustice” to define another abstraction. To use this definition, one would have to look up those words, too. I didn’t do that, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t defined as,“fair.” Item 2 from this dictionary uses another very high-level abstraction, “legitimately.” In the debate between the Occupy Wall Street crowd and a businessman, I bet both would consider themselves “legitimate,” but would have grossly different definitions of the word.
The last clause in the Dictionary.com definition is not too bad: “proper under the rules.” “Proper” in this sense clearly means “according to” the rules, and the concept of “rules” is pretty concrete. Rules are set beforehand, hopefully written, and, though they may vary per the situation, for any situation, it is possible to know them with certainty.
The Merriam-Webster definition wasn’t too awful until I got to that “…free from self-interest,” phrase. This is a classic progressive/statist equivocation. To cut this short, if one is in any sport or endeavor, is it not in the “self-interest” of all for the rules to be enforced uniformly, or impartially, to use their own word? The idea that self-interest precludes honesty, fairness, or justice is a despicable false dichotomy. It is used to justify such monstrosities as vast government bureaucracies staffed by automatons who have no interest or stake in any decision, and are thereby incapable of making rational, useful decisions. It is a hopelessly contradictory, and as such, false. Maybe even evil.
Part B of the M-W definition is actually pretty clear-cut: “conforming with the established rules; allowed.” It says, explicitly, that the rules are established antecedently, and implicitly that all parties at least have access to them.
Part 2 of that definition is absolutely stunning! It says, “consonant with merit or performance; due.” This is the only reference in these four dictionaries to the concept of “earning” something, or that something earned by a person is “due” that person. They almost slipped this one past me! I didn’t catch it until I’d read over the definition several times, and then it stopped me cold. “Merit” is a bit of an abstraction, and some may argue whether merit is inborn or intrinsic, or is related to volition and action, but used in conjunction with “performance,” it implies the latter; some performance may have more merit that other performance. Stunning! This will come up again!
The Macmillan definition is contemptible and utterly worthless – nay, destructive – destructive because it may lead some poor student into thinking he is actually better-informed or –educated after having read it. First, using a word in a sentence is not a definition. Second, “…everyone is treated equally,” contains an explicit acceptance of equalitarianism, which flies squarely in the face of Merriam-Webster’s “merit or performance.” Not all people will perform equally, so does being “…treated equally,” mean they all get the same result, regardless of performance, or does it mean that they are all judged by the same standard, and those who come up short… well…come up short? And “reasonable?” Give me a break! How many definitions of that word can you find on any given street corner?
Their second definition, “Reasonable and morally right,” is just as bad, if not worse. These are two of the greatest, most hotly-debated abstractions in the realm of human politics! They could as well have said, “Whatever Wiley E. Coyote likes.” It is difficult for me to suppress my loathing and contempt for the oatmeal-minded, professional idiot who penned this preposterous excuse for a definition.
Oh, how I have loved my Oxford Universal Dictionary of the English Language! All umpteen pounds of it! Published in 1957, it has been my standard of value for meaning and usage since I bought it at a yard sale for 50 cents.
The first part of their definition makes the same assertion as part B of Merriam-Webster’s entry: that rules may exist, and what is in accordance with them is “fair.” It also uses one of the greatest bugaboos in all liberaldom: “standards!” Rules are not the same as standards; both words refer to concretes, which makes them very solid for using in a definition. Then Oxford let me down; they threw in “legitimate.” Dang it! “Legitimate” is as great an abstraction as “reasonable,” or “morally right.”
The second part of the Oxford dictionary falls apart. “Just or appropriate” are debatable under any circumstances, and as such are not admissible evidence in the court of definition. It is interesting that Oxford implies that what is fair under one set of circumstances may not be under another, but they didn’t develop this crucial aspect of fairness. A shame.
Finally, their definition of fair as an adverb is not bad except for the reference to “unjust.” What is “unjust” Well, it’s not “fair.” And so on and on around the spinney until the woozle bites us on the butt!
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
There may be decent dictionaries online, but I haven’t found one. If a 5th grader were to try to make sense out of the OWS howling about fairness, and went to these online sources, the poor kid would be so screwed up it would take a year on an island with a stack of Pogo comics to straighten him out.
It is my intention to examine as many different components of fairness as possible and come up with a usable, reality based, rational definition that does not include floating abstractions or tautology, and does not beg questions, but is concise and comprehensible.
It may take me down the rabbit hole, around the spinney, and where no man has gone before, but I’m gonna give it a shot.
As often as language is a product of its culture, so the reverse is also true. Words determine the organization of concepts in our minds, and the relationships between those concepts. If words were tinker toys, how many different connections could you make?
A word like “fair” has been used so much, for so many different things, that one might be tempted to shake one’s head and say, “It ain’t worth the trouble.” But I take a different cut at it; because the word has been used so much, it must be either very important or very handy, and either way it’s worth some time.
Very often, “fair” seems to be closely associated with justice, as either a synonym or a simile. Justice is a pretty broad abstraction, too, but has been much better treated in print than has fair. A distillation of several definitions of justice centers on one of two things: a law being fulfilled, or someone getting what he deserved. If someone breaks a law and is punished, that’s justice; he screwed up and got what he deserved. But emotionally, the two ideas are vastly different.
For one thing, the law and justice are not the same, and are rapidly diverging, though there are still occasions when we would say a punishment is fair because it suits the crime. More and more often, we find ourselves thinking that justice is done when a law is flaunted, or punishment deflected. For example, if someone were arrested for violating a bad law, but those who did the arresting came out on the short end, we’d say justice was done. In this case, fair and the dictates of the law are opposed.
Emotionally, we often associate fair more with mercy than with justice. If justice is someone getting what he deserved – good or bad, and in the context of life, in general, rather than the law – then mercy is someone not getting what he deserved. In Albuquerque a month or so ago, a Mexican illegal alien risked his own safety to rescue a little girl from the hands of a molester. He was publicly praised and commended and pretty much pardoned for everything, and I think the vast majority of folks thought that was fair, and even just – though certainly not by the letter of the law.
At this point, scratching my head as I ponder the contradictions I’ve just written, it strikes me to back off and fire on this from a different angle. A strict, linguistically and epistemologically sound definition of fair shouldn’t be all that difficult to write. It’s the emotional connotations and loading of the word that get messy. In fact, the word has so much emotion attached to it that it may be impossible for many to read such a definition without throwing something at me.
How about this: “Fair – adjective – in accordance or compliance with the standards and/or the rules that apply to a situation at a given time, and in a given place.”
This acknowledges that standards – ie, what we think is right – and rules – ie, what someone has written down – are not necessarily the same. The reference to “… a situation…” acknowledges that the facts make a difference in what is fair. The reference to “… a given time, and in a given place,” acknowledges that standards of right and wrong change over time, and that different cultural groups will have different standards. What is fair in one century, or in one country, may not be fair at any other time or place.
The essence of this definition is that no matter what you are talking about, you can find some nut, somewhere, who thinks it’s fair. Does this invalidate the definition? No, it does not. In order for someone to think something is fair, it would have to be “…in accordance or compliance…” with that person’s standards. The fact that standards vary matters not a whit. “Fair” is what complies with our standards for that situation. If you understand a person’s standards, you can know what they will think is fair. Conversely, if you look at what they think is fair, you can pretty well see their standards.
Consider any adjective – let’s take “blue.” Skeptics and agnostics love to ask, “How do you know that the color you call blue is the same as the color I call blue?” They love to pretend this makes a rat’s hiney’s worth of difference to intelligent people, and will drop this polemic turd in the conversational punchbowl at the first opportunity.
The fact is that I DON’T know the color I call blue is the same one you call blue. That doesn’t mean that the color isn’t real, nor that my senses – or yours – are invalid. The fact of the matter is that the object we are looking at is a real object. It exists, and has the very specific and real surface characteristic as to reflect light of the frequency that we both call blue.. That’s all that matters. It’s real. Our senses are real. When I say blue, you know what I mean, and whether we are both experiencing the same sensory response doesn’t make a flippin’ bit of difference.
The same is true of definitions of subjective concepts like fair. The definition must include the fact of subjectivity. That doesn’t invalidate the definition; it makes it real.
“Fair – adjective – in accordance or compliance with the standards and/or the rules that apply to a situation at a given time, and in a given place.”
A definition must avoid tautology, or using a word to define itself. Synonyms are fine, but they are not definitions because they, in turn, must be defined. A definition must not use unfounded or ungrounded abstractions because, like tautologies, they must be defined before they may be useful. When defining a concept as broad as “fair,” that is used in such radically different ways, a definition must be broad enough to include all genuses (or genera), and specific enough to differentiate the concept from all others. The dictionaries I quoted went wrong because they didn’t understand these basic principles.
The definition I have tendered of “fair” posits that no matter how the word is used, it indicates compliance or adherence with some standard or rule. The standard can be anything, and in the case of fair, is quite likely to be! But this is a fact: whoever uses the word is saying that the subject complies with his standards, whatever they may be. My definition also allows for the fact that a thing may be considered fair at one time, or in one place, but not in another, again without pinning it to any one standard.
Standards will vary, but that fair refers to them is not the least bit subjective or situational. Whenever I hear a politician say, “I will do what is fair [or right],” I start looking for the door. Look around. No matter which side of this sorry rodeo you are on, it is plain that folks’ definitions of fair vary hysterically!
The fact that standards are subjective does not in any way invalidate the definition of fair, nor delegitimize the use of the word. In a delicious bit of irony, it tells us more about the speaker than about the subject. If someone says stoning little girls for looking at little boys is fair, we learn nothing whatsoever about stoning. But we learn much about the speaker – whether we agree with him or not! It is interesting to me, geek that I am, how a word properly defined and understood is more useful in understanding the person using it than for understanding the subject.
When people talk about the rich, “…paying their fair share,” one must ask, “According to what standard?” How much is fair in this case? Bill Gates certainly qualifies as rich. He got his money by developing and managing an organization that provides products that have changed the course of the human race for the rest of ever. Did Bill earn that wealth of his? I say he did. He earned it in ways that those who disparage him are incapable of grasping. So if fair has to do with getting what you’ve earned, who is qualified to say Bill earned so much, but no more? The instant someone says, “Fair share,” they are saying that a fair share can be defined, that someone can define it, and that they are the ones to do it. I hear someone whining, “Wellll, they didn’t say THEY were the ones to do it.” Give me a friggin’ break! Do you think they’re gonna let Bill decide?
I am not comfortable walking unarmed among such people.
Anytime you hear someone say that such and so is “only fair,” understand that they have not defined the fairness of whatever it is. They have shown you, as if on a giant billboard, what they hold dear, what their ethics are, and what they would do to you if they had a chance.
There are other such words. “Radical” is one. When anyone condemns you for being “radical,” what he’s really saying is that he doesn’t agree with your position, but darned if he can figure out why, so he’s just going to attack you. Think about it. Has anyone every said, “You are 100% right, you radical SOB?”
Another is, “Narrow-minded.” The same rule applies to this as to radical. We should all strive to frequently hear such words thrown at us by those who are intellectually incapable of holding us a light. (From one of my mom’s Panhandle expressions. It means they aren’t fit to hold the lantern that illuminates your work.)
Use the rules of definition to analyze what people say. It may not tell you much about the subject of which they speak, but it can tell you volumes about them, and ultimately, that’s probably more valuable.