Life is not “Unfair”

I apologize in advance because I may ramble a little. This is unlike my normal political/social posts.

A common 21st century theme is that “life just isn’t fair”.  When someone dies at an early age, when children go without food, when a referee makes an incorrect call, if a lazy co-worker earns a higher salary, or when someone we dislike advances in society we often say “well…life just isn’t fair”. In my mind that is a silly conclusion and in some ways it relieves us of personal responsibility because if things do not go according to our wishes we can blame it on an unfair universe. As my good friend Lara recently said, “As adults, the world is far too complicated to be broken down into fair or unfair”. She argues that the word “fair” is only appropriate for children who do not grasp the world’s complexity.

The platitude is even more problematic when used by those with strong religious convictions who believe a deity is taking an active role in society and in people’s lives. When they say “life isn’t fair” they are directly challenging their deity’s decisions and the role that deity plays in their lives. Would God make “unfair” decisions?

And those without religious convictions accusing life of being unfair are indirectly concluding that there is some universal moral agent making decisions about our daily lives. “Fair” assumes there are some universal rules that equally apply to everyone, and life is “unfair” if I don’t get my fair share. Those rules of fairness must have been established by some power higher than are we.

So it is a silly statement regardless of how it is used or who uses it. Life isn’t fair or unfair. Life is life. As much as people dislike the phrase, “it is what it is”. Life is often random and treats many of our fellow citizens better than others, but that doesn’t mean it is “unfair”.  A significant portion of our living standards or success in life can be attributed to the random nature of our birth; some of us are born into better families, better living conditions, and with better economic opportunities than others. Those are the issues we should be addressing. How can we ensure greater opportunities for everyone?

And don’t tell me that all it takes is hard work. I’m a reasonably smart guy but there are not enough hours in the day or days in the week to make it possible for me to pass a class in physics or tensor calculus. I’m also pretty certain I could have practiced tennis ten hours per day as a youngster and still would not have made it to Wimbledon (curse you, slow-twitch muscle fibers!!). I am and will always be controlled by my physical and intellectual limits.

Also, don’t tell a kid who grew up in the ghetto that all she has to do is work hard to be successful because sometimes that works and other times it doesn’t. Circumstances are random. The presence of mentors or other responsible adults in children’s lives is often random. Some kids have the opportunity to have that one person step in to their lives who makes a difference, others do not.

The truth is that the world has always been random and we don’t like it. We want to assume there are universal rules that apply equally to all.  There are no such rules and that makes us unhappy because more than anything else we want order and “logical” explanations, and we spend our lives trying to create them. So when life throws inconvenient or painful events our way we want to explain  those events away as “unfair”, as something that doesn’t fit with our sense of and need for order.

So:

  • The Paris Climate Accords were not “unfair” to the United States. If they treated us unequally (and they didn’t) it is because we negotiated poorly.
  • It is not unfair that children starve to death every day. We choose to live on a planet that does not distribute an abundant supply of food equitably.
  • It is not unfair that bankers and CEO’s earn much more than lower-level workers. We choose to live in a capitalistic society that treats people unequally without addressing that inequity.
  • It is not unfair if our spouses have affairs or otherwise find comfort with others. The random nature of our relationships or our personal unwillingness to address relationship problems lead some partners to that place. It still isn’t right, but it is not unfair.
  • It is not unfair when people criticize Kathy Griffin for holding a fake severed and bloody head of President Trump when they were silent over lynching videos and photographs of President Obama. Both are deplorable and unacceptable and resulted from poor choices and poor character traits. The difference is that Kathy Griffin  is a celebrity, so her actions drew immediate attention (remember the media attention when Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair pretending it was Barack Obama?). But it wasn’t unfair.
  • Racism and sexism are not unfair. They are personal characteristics of some portion of society that, thank goodness, most of us deplore.  And institutional sexism and racism are shameful social attributes that society chooses not to address.
  • Global warming is not unfair but it is wrong for my generation to ignore the possibility that our actions may be limiting options for our children and all future generations. Yes, it is a possibility and even if there is only a slight chance we are adversely affecting the environment we should seek alternatives to fossil fuel. But it is not unfair that we aren’t doing so. It’s  just narrow minded.
  • It is not unfair if I study twenty hours for an exam but earn a lower score than someone who studied only ten hours. That student probably has more natural understanding of the subject than do I.

You get the idea. The notion that “life isn’t fair” allows us to blame problems on something other than ourselves.

After all, if life was fair I would have millions of readers!

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