Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two concepts of fairness

Sarah, my sis-in-law, was talking about the State of Kids Today the other month. Not complaining exactly. She likes kids, and prides herself on talking to them on their own terms. But still, she sometimes gets a shade exasperated. "She kept saying 'It's not fair!' So I asked her 'Can you tell me what you mean by fair?' When she thought about it, she had to admit that basically she meant 'I don't like it!'. That's all 'fair' really means."

(Sarah is an eloquent woman. She really does talk like that, punctuation and everything.)

I thought it was a good observation, but incomplete. 'Fair' may be vague, but vague isn't the same as useless. And it doesn't only mean 'fair to me' - there is more to it than that. Kids will often invoke 'fairness' on behalf of others, not just themselves.

Last week, no less an organ than The Economist ran a leader headed 'Against fairness'. This frankly bizarre piece argues that it's a weasel word used by politicians to fudge the necessity to make hard choices.
Fairness is fudge. This newspaper will have none of it. We reject the wide, woolly notion of fairness in favour of sharper, narrower words that mean what they say, like just or cruel.
When I read that, it was my turn to be exasperated. This is pure Newspeak: limiting language, with the aim of limiting thought.

'Fair', in case anyone was in doubt, is not meant to be a synonym for 'just'. When lawyers talk about the concept of fairness - and surprisingly, they do in fact talk about it quite a lot - the word they use is 'equity'. Therein lies a clue to how the concept works.

I recalled an essay I wrote, a couple of years ago now, on the difference between 'liberty' and 'freedom'. I had always kind of assumed that the two words were synonymous; and if you look in a dictionary, the meanings are very similar. But if you look at the historical and cultural baggage they bring with them, they are very different. The bird that symbolises liberty is an eagle - an apex predator, majestic, fearless, and above all strong - liberty is something that must be asserted, defended, recognised. Whereas freedom requires no special size or strength: in the canonical representation of 'captivity', it's not an eagle that's in the cage, but a canary. I associated the two words with Isaiah Berlin's concepts of "positive and negative liberty" - freedom to, and freedom from.

Freedom - what Berlin calls 'negative liberty' - is the area within which one may act without being prevented. As such, the very word implies limits. "If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air [...] it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced." Whereas liberty - Berlin's 'positive liberty' - recognises no such constraints: "I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside."

I think there's a similar relationship between 'fair' and 'just'. 'Free' and 'fair' are Anglo-Saxon words whose meaning is so simple that any kid can grasp them, even without being able to define them. Anglo-Saxon rhetoric flows from the soul, not the mind. Whereas Latin-derived words, like 'justice' and 'liberty' (and, of course, 'equity'), are the subject of endless debate, political demagoguery and hair-splitting sophistry.

Back to The Economist's uncharacteristically ill-thought-out rant:
To one lot of people, fairness means establishing the same rules for everybody, playing by them, and letting the best man win and the winner take all. To another, it means making sure that everybody gets equal shares.
Personally I would have no hesitation in telling anyone who expressed either of those views that their game design was deeply flawed. Good games are not 'winner take all', because that leaves the losers with nothing, and people with nothing have no way to play; nor do they guarantee 'equal shares', because that would be not so much a game as a story. Equity is 'balanced', but it does not prejudge the outcome - it is not equality.

'Playing by the rules' may be just, but 'winner take all' is clearly not equitable. 'Fairness' implies balance, in much the same way as 'freedom' implies limits. The same word 'equity', that lawyers use to describe 'fairness', in finance means 'shares'. That's not a coincidence.


Steven Marty Grant said...

Now you are going to make me dig through my (unread) pile of magazines so I can read the article.

vet said...

Heh. You really have to read the Economist while it's fresh.

Having said that, last week's was a weird issue. Led with a dodgy article on cyber-warfare, and included the retirement of two of its more distinguished regular columnists. Even more oddly, they both announced they were departing.

I smell internal politics. I do hope no idiot is trying to turn it into some kind of half-assed Wall Street Journal-cum-National Review substitute.

M said...

I'd love to have you sit around one of our dinner table discussions. I have a feeling "lively" wouldn't begin to describe it. (yes, I talk that way, too.)

vet said...

M, I'd love to join you, but unless you can come visit us here, I don't see it happening any time soon.

Seriously, come and visit. Try November/December, when it's getting cold and miserable up there. (But not Christmas. We're gonna be pretty tied up this year.)