Life Isn’t Fair: Part I

Crying HelpsI’m traveling these next few days and unable to put up new material. This post, which is more relevant today and which I wish I could edit, originally appeared on 11 May 2011.

Mothers used to be terrific repositories of cultural wisdom. A good number of them were mean philosophers, too. But, with rare exceptions, this is no longer so. What this falling away spells for the future our civilization can only be guessed at.

Used to be when Junior ran into the house, his eyes full of tears because Johnny down the block had a new toy which he did not, or because Johnny could go somewhere he could not, Junior would stammer that this was a manifest injustice. To irrevocably close the subject, Mom would explain, “Life isn’t fair.” If Junior failed to accept this truth on the force of Mom’s authority, her argument might be accompanied by material or corporal proof.

If Mom would have had the patience and the time, she could have explained not only why life isn’t fair, but that it couldn’t possibly be fair no matter who would attempt to make it so, and regardless of their good intentions. Moms are now too busy to impart this most valuable lesson. Or perhaps they have forgotten it.

For example, I saw Mom the other day in the park reading The Drama of the Gifted Child, a book which I bet says not one word about the inherent unfairness of life.

Too, many moms are having one kid instead of many, so instead of being an advocate between the kidlings in her own brood, she has become one for her own among other moms’ kids, where instead of intoning her old wisdom, it is frequently her that says, “That’s not fair!”

I thus present this brief article as a service for today’s moms who may have forgotten what their mothers told them, and whose children are badly in need of learning that life isn’t fair.

Fair is one of those words of which everybody knows the definition, a definition everybody assumes is shared by everybody else. This is not so. Clearly Junior had a different idea of what fair meant than did his mother or Johnny. Disagreement about definitions is only one reason why life cannot be fair.

It is clear that the idea people have in mind is fairness with regard to circumstance and with regard to treatment. Circumstance are such things as birth location and place of residence, genetic sex, possessions and so forth. Treatment is conduct towards you or another from a person or persons.

Even if we perfected cloning such that we have discovered a way that exact genetic duplicates (without random mutations) of sexless humans can be produced, no two of these creatures can be “born” or whelped at the same place and time. This is unfair to many: to all those who have come before this Utopian technology was created, including those long dead, and to those who would have chosen a different production location if they could.

Note that while production place can be centralized, unfairness is forever un-fixable in time. For example, the clones produced at the Central Birthing Hub will still come one after the other, with those born this year suffering the lack of improvement realized by those born a century hence. Or if conditions are worse 100 years from now, those produced sooner will realize greater benefits than those who come after.

Since this genetic perfection is unlikely and probably impossible, there will always be fixed unfairness with birth location and time, genetic sex, and the myriad other genetic components which make people different. That is, no matter how strongly fairness is desired, some will be taller, more muscular, sexier, funnier, smarter, and so on. And there is nothing that can be done to alleviate this injustice.

At a start, fairness—or equality—in circumstance is an impossibility. Not just is it unlikely, but it is impossible: at least, if fairness is defined in this respect. It is also important not confuse fairness or unfairness with respect to circumstance with that of treatment. For example, of two people, one might be male the other female and that both are treated the same by all others their entire life. But because males and females suffer unequal burdens and have different abilities, the unfairness due to these differences cannot be eliminated.


  1. Doug M

    I was listening to my god-daughter complaing about the un-fairness of the situation to her father. (I don’t have any children of my own, or I would probably hear about unfairness ever day)

    What is “so unfair” about only getting to stay up 1/2 hour more than the little brother?

    Fairness is important to children. We teach them that it is a virtue. But is seems that they have little understanding of what the word actually means. If they are given a responsibility, or an assignment, or a limit, that they don’t want to accept. they drop the fairness card.

  2. Eric Anderson

    It is true that life is often “unfair” in terms of our background, capabilities, experiences, outcomes, etc. Certainly this is one of life’s great lessons.

    I think Doug M is right that children find fairness very important. I think it is more an inherent sense of equity and justice — they don’t like to be treated by others in an arbitrary or capricious manner. Of course they (we) have to go through the painful process of learning which events fall in that category and deserve our attention to change or correct, and which events are just the natural result of chemistry, physics, nature, and life on a volatile planet in which we are constantly jostling and rubbing shoulders with each other (for good or ill).

    In a more general and philosophical sense, however, one could certainly argue that life is fair. Specifically, if you didn’t have any particular right to come on the scene in the first place and if you can leave any time you like, then whatever experiences you have (good or ill) simply add to your store of experience and knowledge.

    Finally, for those of certain religious persuasions, there is the idea that the “fairness” gets worked out in the long run, meaning that whatever challenges or difficulties one experiences in life are but a temporary setback, to be resoundingly made up for in the long run.

  3. Luis Dias

    Because we are all different, we should just forget about fairness and attempts at creating equal opportunities for everybody.

    So let’s just forget things like racism, xenophobia, mysoginy, gay discrimination, or any other types of discrimination. If they are treated differently, they probably deserve it. Right?

  4. Matt

    It’s amazing! That’s, like, exactly what he said!

  5. Well it wasn’t exactly my mom that drilled that into me, but my dad too. As well as much of my extended family.

    It’s amazing how much growing up in a farming community gets one to realize that life sucks, the only thing we can control is ourselves.

  6. Briggs


    You’re not reading very carefully. Tsk tsk.

  7. Adam H

    “If they are treated differently, they probably deserve it. Right?”

    Yes, Luis. You hit the nail on the head. The message “life is not fair” is another way of saying “you probably deserve it”.

    *switch to non-sarcastic tone of voice*

    Typically the appropriate time to bust out a “life isn’t fair” is when someone complains about something GOOD happening to someone else – not when someone is victimized by racism.

  8. Les Johnson

    “Life is not fair. Get used to it.”

    Charles Sykes (but often mis-attributed to Bill Gates or Kurt Vonnegut. Which is unfair to Chuck Sykes. I hope he got used to it.)

  9. Mariner

    Calvin’s Mom: Life isn’t fair, honey.

    Calvin: I know, Mom, I know. But why can’t it ever be unfair in my favor?

  10. This is always an interesting discussion in statistics class: Is the Lotto fair?

    By one criterion, all players are treated equally, it certainly is. Everyone has a lousy chance of winning.

    By the wonky, mathematical criterion, that the players and the state have equal expected payoffs, the Lotto is manifestly unfair.

    The moral? Statistics is as much about what you measure as it is about inferences from those measurements.

  11. Katie

    When I was a kid, my best friend’s much older sisters were the essence of “fair” If one girl had a particular kind of hair-dryer, so did the other (the thought of them having to share was unheard of). It wasn’t just equality with hair-dryers, but all the accouterments that teenagers of the 1970s had. I was in awe of the lengths the parents went to for fairness.

    Some parents try fairness not just with items, but with dollar amounts spent on each child. This is more for the parents than for the children, and in the end, they will be broke and their children will be dissatisfied. Of course the parents are going to trip up and do something wrong, and buy the uncool pair of jeans or make some other unintentional slight that we be forever remembered.

    All children are different and need different things—and they all don’t want or need the same things. For instance, if a child is sportif, a fine collection of paint and colored pencils won’t be as cherished as if it were given to one who has an artistic bent. Similarly, the child who prefers to stay indoors isn’t going to thrill at the gift of a soccer kit. This is not to say not to introduce your budding athlete to art or to push your bookworm outside once in a while, but it is to say not to go overboard in giving things they don’t want or appreciate.

    But what all children need and thrive on is the attention of their parents. It costs nothing to spend time with your child, and he or she will be better for it.

  12. Bruce Foutch

    So, when does the concept of fairness vs unfairness lead us to the obvious political imperative – that of entitlements?

  13. Ken

    Briggs, some thoughts:

    1) Children seem (my observation) to have an instinctive sense that things should be “fair” meaning pretty much equal. However, when they get an advantage they don’t hesitate to become pompous and/or demeaning to their peers (this is readily evident by age 5). This is clear narcissism, which most of us “outgrow” by the very late teens thru 30s. Thus, the primitive, childish, form of “fairness” we humans manifest is of a particular type that allows us to see no problems with an un-equitible distribution of [whatever] when we are the beneficiaries of “extra.” We are, at our core, inclined to be [if we mature] or are [if we don’t] hypocrites.

    2) “Drama of the Gifted Child,” is a pretty good book insofar as it goes per its narrow focus. Why that even came up in this item baffles me.

    3) As for touching on the idea of “fairness” and being a statistician…I hope you’ll touch on the inevitible effects of random chance/luck on unequal distributions of [whatever]? Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers (I think), touched on this in his way — noting that a sizeable proportion of the wealthiest in the world’s history were from the period in which industrialization took hold. These were born old enough to take advantage of fundamental changes in economies but young enough not to be set in their ways. He uses Bill Gates as a mini-case study: a guy that loved to tinker with the earliest computers & who developed considerable proficiency in this New Thing that might or might not prosper. As it did, Gates was in a prime position, due to his experience, to exploit this new technology. Which also illustrated the adage that one makes one’s opportunities by being prepared, in advance, to first recognize then next take advantage of them when they develop. In other words, “luck” has as underlying components self-discipline & hard work (even sacrifice) mingled with perseverance as prerequisites.

  14. Luis,
    Again, the argument that if somethings are not fair, NOTHING should be fair and we should not even try. Just because not ALL of life will ever be fair does not mean we should not try. If you can’t clean your whole house, then you just don’t clean it at all? If you can’t earn $500,000 a year, you just work? It’s not a valid argument.
    Arguing that “they deserve it” does not follow from life is not fair. In fact, it is proof that life is not fair. If life were fair, and the person was poor and stupid, it would mean they deserve it, would it not?
    Rich: It’s a parent’s job to give their children skills to deal with the unfairness. 🙂

  15. Alan D McIntire

    Mike Anderson referred to a gambling situation to address “fair”. I immediately thought of a second gambling situation- horse racing- specifically “handicap races”. In a handicap race horses are given different weights to carry based on ability. A horse that has a better race record is given a handicap (more weight) to even the playing field.
    In this case “fair” is used in the sense of giving each contestant an even chance. Tiger woods giving me 40 strokes in a golf round or Ohio State giving Arizona 4 points in a basketball game might be considered “fair”.

    An alternative definition of “fair” would be to measure actual ability with NO handicap. In this use of the word, a handicap horse race would not be fair because the fastest horse, the better golfer, and the better basketball team may not win despite performing better than their opponents.

    I consider the deliberately vague use of “fair” to be demagoguery whenever it is used.

  16. Ray

    Fair is one of those vague and ambiguous words with no objective meaning. The dictionary contains some two dozen definitions of fair. However, when a politician starts talking about fair, it means you are about to be screwed.

  17. When anyone introduces the word fair to a substantive conversation, I immediately reply, “What do you mean by that?” And I refuse to proceed until he supplies specifics.

    The would-be tyrants of the world have used fair as an all-purpose bludgeon against those whom they would strip of their rights and property. But fair from such a mouth almost always means equality of outcomes, which is not possible in most situations and never better than meta-stable even when it is.

    The key to detoxifying fair when encountered in political discourse is to insist on a specific definition. In the usual case, the fair-monger will turn red and slink away. His cloak of moral righteousness is about to be torn off, and if he has the brains God gave a cockroach, he’ll realize it and withdraw before you can compel him to reveal his true agenda: coercive leveling.

  18. Sanderr van der Wal

    Fairness is that for the same amount of work you will receive the same amount of value as everybody else. This is the definition that is also used by other social animals, like capuchin monkeys.

  19. William Sears

    Sanderr van der Wal,

    “The same amount of work” is a hopelessly vague notion. Fairness is producing a service or product that other people are willing to pay you for in an amount agreed upon in an open and free exchange. You seem to imply that a third party would supervise the alignment of value and work. As history has repeatedly shown such a scheme is unworkable. Pun intended.

  20. Briggs

    Sanderr van der Wal,

    So you’re against welfare, you little monkey you?

  21. Sanderr van der Wal

    @William Sears

    If two people have the same job, then they should make the same amount of money. You do not need a supervising party, you need the info about the value exchanged for that particular job.

    This doesn’t mean that people won’t take the job if they make less than somebody else. It just means that they think they are not treated fairly. The kind of action they will take next depends on their options.


    If there is welfare, then people in the same circumstance should receive the same amount of welfare. How much welfare there should be is a different discussion.

    For the record, I do think that a certain amount of welfare is the right thing to do. The kind that enables people to take care of themselves as much as possible. Which is less than is customary nowadays in the Western-European welfare states. I am not familiar with the USA situation.

    And I am a big ape. No tail, and 6 foot and a bit. No monkey is that big 🙂

  22. @Sanderr,

    “If two people have the same job, then they should make the same amount of money.”

    Nonsense. “The same job” does not mean the same value to the employer. I have several engineers reporting to me. I pay the most to the ones that perform best — regardless of age, sex, race, creed, or political leanings. That creates an incentive to improve, without which nothing ever changes for the better. And thus be it ever, where free men shall stand.

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