Considering the interests of others, not merely our own interests, and acting on that consideration, is an early step toward justice, commonly called being fair.
- Man was born free; but everywhere he is in chains. [Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Part 1: Origins and Terms of the Social Contract.]
Most people would say that fairness is a basic building block of justice. But what is fair? The mere establishment of a set of rules does not mean those rules are just.
A fair system of interaction is one in which all participants have equal power and an equal chance. The parties agree on the terms of interaction, based on equal knowledge and bargaining power; or a system is arranged, such as through democratic government, in which everyone truly has an equal chance. Often this building block of justice operates through a system of interchange that resembles a contract; thus the term “social contract.” [See Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right (1762).]
Cavaet: People, especially those of us in highly developed societies, are inclined to become rule-bound. Under every set of rules is a set of assumptions, and like every set of rules, every set of assumptions, at its best, is merely an imperfect approximation of some kind of truth. Fairness is not nirvana. We are at the first, thou-shalt-not, level of ethical development. We have much to learn and a long way to go.
Technical and Analytical Readings
Game theorist Steven Brams has made a career out of establishing means and mechanisms of fair dealing. A simple mechanism for establishing a fair system of interaction is easily understood: cake-cutting. When two people are about to divide a slice of cake, the best way to ensure fairness is for one to cut the cake and the other to choose. By this simple mechanism of interaction, the first choice-maker decides how to cut the cake, knowing that the other party will then decide which piece to take. This ensures that the first party will make every effort to divide the cake evenly. If only every transaction was so easily structured. What do you do, for example, when three people are to share the cake - or 300 million - 7 billion?
- Steven J. Brams and Alan D. Taylor, Fair Division: From cake-cutting to dispute resolution (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
- Steven J. Brams and Alan D. Taylor, The Win-Win Solution: Guaranteeing Fair Shares to Everybody (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).
- Others have expanded the idea of fair division into other areas, such as economics.
- Hervé J. Moulin, Fair Division and Collective Welfare (The MIT Press, 2003).
- Julius B. Barbanel, The Geometry Efficient Fair Division (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Should I take from a neighbor as a freeman, in a free country, I should consider myself guilty of doing wrong before God and man. But was I the slave of Wm. Gatewood to-day, or any other slaveholder, working without wages, and suffering with hunger or for clothing, I should not stop to inquire whether my master would approve of my helping myself to what I needed to eat or wear. For while the slave is regarded as property, how can he steal from his master? It is contrary to the very nature of the relation existing between master and slave, from the fact that there is no law to punish a slave for theft, but lynch law; and the way they avoid that is to hide well. [Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1849), Chapter XIX.]
This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery. When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him? I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages. [Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Chapter XL, The Fugitive Slave Law.]
On the dark side:
- Jesse Eisinger, The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives (Simon & Schuster, 2017). “Why was virtually no one prosecuted for causing the 2008 financial crisis, which devastated the global economy and cost the United States almost nine million jobs? Some people think the fix is in . . .”
- Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill & Wang, 2017): “Stoll’s thesis is built around the concept of dispossession . . . English peasants dispossessed by the practice of enclosure, an early ancestor of private property rights; Native Americans dispossessed of land by American settlers; Appalachians dispossessed of their subsistence farms by coal mining operations.”
- Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “ What do grades and degrees tell us . . . about the widening gap between rich and poor, proud and humiliated, trusting and suspicious, opponent and devotee of Donald Trump?”
- Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014): A lawyer personalizes the struggle against injustice with the story of a man wrongfully convicted or murder.
- Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sabony and Cass R. Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (Little Brown, Spark, 2021): about unwanted and arbitrary variability in human judgments.
- Nancy Schwartzman, Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power, and Football in the American Heartland (Hachette Books, 2022): “A meticulous account of the 'first rape case ever to go viral in the United States,' the book moves from the facts of one summer night in Rust Belt Ohio into a broader reckoning with American masculinity and the emerging influence of the internet on sexual assault cases.”
- Dan Bouk, Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them (MCD, 2022): “. . . reveals in often head-smacking detail how badly (the United States’ decennial census) has failed society. Native Americans were long excluded in particularly baroque fashion and ethnic classification abetted among other horrors the roundup of Japanese Americans to internment camps and the deportation of Mexican immigrants.”
Film and Stage
- Judgment at Nuremberg: Justice or even mere fairness is not possible for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The trials at Nuremberg were merely a attempt to emphasize rules necessary for civil order, an effort to live by fair (humane) rules, which would produce justice if uniformly followed.
- Anatomy of a Murder, a courtroom drama
- Breaker Morant, about an injustice
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Gioachino Rossini, La Cenerentola (Cinderella): (1817) (approx. 150-200 minutes), “is instantly recognizable as the fairy tale ‘Cinderella.’ Yet Gioachino Rossini’s intricate, hilarious, and heartfelt take on the story is no mere bedtime fable. Magical elements go out the window, while the stately archetypes of fairy-tale narratives give way to real, flesh-and-blood characters. Cinderella falls in love at first sight, but she also feels the pain of familial rejection, the sting of bullying, and the ache of self-doubt, which make her profound joy at the end of the opera all the more gratifying.” No one treated opera’s Cinderalla fairly, except maybe her prince, her fairy godmother, and of course her animal friends. Still: “. . . Angelina of La Cenerentola is more than an accessory on the arm of some glib urban warrior. And she isn’t waiting for Mr. Wonderful to bring her out of her shell. She’s already out. She’s a believable human being who remains true to herself, and above all remains true to love.” The ethical lessons in the opera are many. Top audio-only recorded performances are by Terrani & Araiza, Ferro conducting, in 1980; and DiDonato & Zapata, Zedda conducting, in 2004. Top recorded performances, with video, are by
Haydn, String Quartets, Opus 50 (“Prussian” quartets, 1787): these quartets present a more restrained attitudes than most of Haydn’s other quartet series, making this opus a suitable representative of fairness.
- Quartet No. 36 in B flat major, Op. 50, No. 1, FHE No. 10, Hoboken No. III:44
- Quartet No. 37 in C major, Op. 50, No. 2, FHE No. 11, Hoboken No. III:45
- Quartet No. 38 in E♭major, Op. 50, No. 3, FHE No. 12, Hoboken No. III:46
- Quartet No. 39 in F♯ minor, Op. 50, No. 4, FHE No. 25, Hoboken No. III:47
- Quartet No. 40 in F major ("Dream"), Op. 50, No. 5, FHE No. 26, Hoboken No. III:48
- Quartet No. 51 in D major (“The Frog”), Op. 50, No. 6, FHE No. 27, Hoboken No. III:49
Boccherini, String Quintets:
- Taurey Butler, “One Of The Others” (2022), “is a throwback trio set with the blues in its bones and in its blood . . .” Each member of the trio takes turns in the foreground on this “selflessly shared” album.
“O, that’s what troubles me, papa. You want me to live so happy, and never to have any pain, — never suffer anything, — not even hear a sad story, when other poor creatures have nothing but pain and sorrow, all their lives; — it seems selfish. I ought to know such things, I ought to feel about them! Such things always sunk into my heart; they went down deep; I’ve thought and thought about them. Papa, isn’t there any way to have all slaves made free?”
“That’s a difficult question, dearest. There’s no doubt that this way is a very bad one; a great many people think so; I do myself; I heartily wish that there were not a slave in the land; but, then, I don’t know what is to be done about it!”
“Papa, you are such a good man, and so noble, and kind, and you always have a way of saying things that is so pleasant, couldn’t you go all round and try to persuade people to do right about this? When I am dead, papa, then you will think of me, and do it for my sake. I would do it, if I could.”
“When you are dead, Eva,” said St. Clare, passionately. “O, child, don’t talk to me so! You are all I have on earth.”
“Poor old Prue’s child was all that she had,—and yet she had to hear it crying, and she couldn’t help it! Papa, these poor creatures love their children as much as you do me. O! do something for them! There’s poor Mammy loves her children; I’ve seen her cry when she talked about them. And Tom loves his children; and it’s dreadful, papa, that such things are happening, all the time!” [Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly (1852), Volume II, Chapter XXIV, “Foreshadowings”.]
- Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2015): “ . . . a tale told, first from the husband’s perspective, then the wife’s.”
From the dark side:
“Very well. And your age?”
Again Quasimodo made no reply to this question. The judge supposed that it had been replied to, and continued,—
“Now, your profession?”
Still the same silence. The spectators had begun, meanwhile, to whisper together, and to exchange glances.
“That will do,” went on the imperturbable auditor, when he supposed that the accused had finished his third reply. “You are accused before us, _primo_, of nocturnal disturbance; _secundo_, of a dishonorable act of violence upon the person of a foolish woman, _in præjudicium meretricis; tertio_, of rebellion and disloyalty towards the archers of the police of our lord, the king. Explain yourself upon all these points.—Clerk, have you written down what the prisoner has said thus far?”
At this unlucky question, a burst of laughter rose from the clerk’s table caught by the audience, so violent, so wild, so contagious, so universal, that the two deaf men were forced to perceive it. Quasimodo turned round, shrugging his hump with disdain, while Master Florian, equally astonished, and supposing that the laughter of the spectators had been provoked by some irreverent reply from the accused, rendered visible to him by that shrug of the shoulders, apostrophized him indignantly,—
“You have uttered a reply, knave, which deserves the halter. Do you know to whom you are speaking?”
This sally was not fitted to arrest the explosion of general merriment. It struck all as so whimsical, and so ridiculous, that the wild laughter even attacked the sergeants of the Parloi-aux-Bourgeois, a sort of pikemen, whose stupidity was part of their uniform. Quasimodo alone preserved his seriousness, for the good reason that he understood nothing of what was going on around him. The judge, more and more irritated, thought it his duty to continue in the same tone, hoping thereby to strike the accused with a terror which should react upon the audience, and bring it back to respect.
“So this is as much as to say, perverse and thieving knave that you are, that you permit yourself to be lacking in respect towards the Auditor of the Châtelet, to the magistrate committed to the popular police of Paris, charged with searching out crimes, delinquencies, and evil conduct; with controlling all trades, and interdicting monopoly; with maintaining the pavements; with debarring the hucksters of chickens, poultry, and water-fowl; of superintending the measuring of fagots and other sorts of wood; of purging the city of mud, and the air of contagious maladies; in a word, with attending continually to public affairs, without wages or hope of salary! Do you know that I am called Florian Barbedienne, actual lieutenant to monsieur the provost, and, moreover, commissioner, inquisitor, _controller_, and examiner, with equal power in provostship, bailiwick, preservation, and inferior court of judicature?—”
There is no reason why a deaf man talking to a deaf man should stop. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Sixth, Chapter I, “An Impartial Glance At the Ancient Magistracy”.]
From the dark side:
· Edgar Lee Masters, “Daisy Fraser”
· Edgar Lee Masters, “Felix Schmidt”
· Edgar Lee Masters, “Hod Putt”
· Edgar Lee Masters, “Hon. Henry Bennett”