If there’s one thing children are universally good at it’s knowing when something isn’t fair. Children have a keen instinct when it comes to knowing when someone is playing favorites or when something good isn’t been given out in equal portions. Knowing when we’re getting the short end of the stick is natural, but as we grow up, the trick is to join this innate sense of justice with empathy so we care about it just as much when it’s others who aren’t being treated fairly.
As understood by the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, fairness combines “justice reasoning which emphasizes logic and weighing principles to determine moral rights and responsibilities” with “care reasoning which includes empathy and compassion.” Its goal is for everyone to be treated justly, without letting personal feelings or biases get in the way. This character strength was to put to the test in my own life at work last year. I was in a meeting and the decision-maker in the room downplayed an idea put forth by a colleague but praised the same idea when I circled back to it later in the conversation. The question for me after the meeting was how to ensure my colleague was given credit for her idea in a way that wouldn’t damage my relationship with the decision-maker. In the end, I sent an email outlining the decisions made in the meeting and noted that we decided to go with [colleague’s name]’s suggestion. I also had a follow-up conversation with my colleague asking how I might prevent similar things from happening in the future.
It’s not hard to see how fairness is an example of the good fruit our life can bear, as it’s a crucial component in building good relationships. Niemietz and McGrath note that “Fair-minded individuals are more likely to engage in positive, prosocial behaviors and less likely to engage in illegal and immoral behavior. They tend to focus on whether their behavior will have a direct negative impact on others” (The Power of Character Strengths”). Going back to my situation at work, had I not taken steps to ensure that my colleague was properly recognized, not only might she have lost the advantage of having had the good idea in the meeting, but it would also have harmed our working relationship, since she could easily have blamed me for benefiting from her ideas. Furthermore, the fact that we had the follow-up question demonstrated that I was committed to fairness and to being a part of the solution.
While we might all agree that fairness is an important value, defining what is fair isn’t quite as simple as we often make it out to be. There are at least three different notions of fairness that come into play:
- Sameness: Everyone gets the same thing.
- Deservedness: Everyone gets what they deserve: hard work pays off with success.
- Need: Everyone is given what they need to succeed, whether that’s less or more than their neighbours.
The difference between these ideas of fairness are at the root of many of our political debates. I’m certainly not going to try to untangle anything here, other than simply to mention that these are complicating factors we need to think about, and ask the people we’re seeking to help how they understand fairness within their circumstances.
Fairness is an important value in the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures. We might think of such lines as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” that, while ultimately insufficient, at least sought for the punishment to fairly fit the damage caused by the crime and to limit retributive violence. There is also a strong call throughout the Scriptures for the justice system to treat everyone fairly, and not to privilege the wealthy and powerful. In fact, unjust judges who are prejudiced against the poor are one of the leading charges the prophets put against Israelite and Judahite kings. One of the beautiful ethical advances of the Jewish Law was that its provisions for justice applied equally to resident aliens, non-citizens living among the people (see for example Deut. 1.16). Already here, we see that God’s provisions for fairness extent beyond our limited understanding of what ‘us’ means.
In the New Testament, there seems to be a concern not just for sameness, but for a leveling of the playing field, with the wealthy giving more to the poor in accordance with their wealth:
For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor 8:12-15)
Jesus plays with the different senses of fairness in his Parable of the Workers (Matt. 20). In this parable, day labourers are paid the same for their work whether they began work at the start of the day or near the end. When the workers who had worked the longest complain that this isn’t fair, the boss tells them that they received what was due to them and if he chooses to be generous to others that isn’t their concern. Looking at the parable and the passage from 2 Corinthians through the lens of fairness, it seems that the concern in the Scriptures is for empathy, generosity, and grace to be the criteria by which we judge what is fair.
This is a helpful segue to looking at what can go wrong with fairness. The absence of fairness is indifference and callousness, where the injustices others faced are seen as being none of our concern. Its opposite is playing favorites and open prejudice. And its excess or perversion can be seen in such traits as bureaucratic stinginess — where in the interest of fairness individual circumstances are not taken into account — and what we might see was the worst impulses of Communism, where individual differences in need or taste were viewed as irrelevant.
What are some ways to increase the character strength of fairness? Here are some suggestions:
- Think of a group you have a hard time empathizing with and learn more about them and their values;
- Admit when you make a mistake;
- Ensure credit is given where it belongs;
- Involve others in decisions that impact them;
- Join an organization that advocates for social justice in your own community.