Life Isn’t Fair: Part III

NoElephantsWe are at the position where somebody thinks a rule, law, or stricture, or the lack of the same, is fair or unfair. The justification for this belief must (eventually) rest on an innate sense of right and wrong. This sense must be innate—or, if you like, instinctual—and not based on calls to, say, the utilitarian or some other external principle. (Totalitarians always argue from the utilitarian premise.)

Suppose a call is made to support “same-sex marriage” based on the argument that homosexuals should be treated “the same as” heterosexuals (they cannot be, obviously; if they were, homosexuals must marry heterosexually). Yet the moral principle that gives rise to this argument is believed to be true by the proponent. Why? If pressed, many will say, “It’s just true,” or “It’s obvious”, or similar words. This shows directly that either the belief is innate or (more likely) adopted without thought.

Incidentally, the argument from “equality” (in same-sex “marriage” or anywhere) also is fallacious because it assumes what it sets out to prove. This fallacy ordinarily would be easy to spot; that it isn’t says something profound—and frightening.

Many moderns, if they are not “outraged” at having to explain themselves when asked “Why?”, will sense that the argument should have some objective basis and will perhaps say, “It’s for the good of society”, or similar utilitarian words (did not Justice Kennedy do this?). The more articulate will give several reasons why this itself is true (“Prejudice hurts us all and here’s why”, etc.). But this merely pushes the problem back one level. Why is it important that society not be hurt by prejudice? Why should I care if anybody is or isn’t hurt? These beliefs, or others still further back, must be innate.

Sensing trouble, an intellectual will seek to push the problem back to what appears to be an unassailable position: showing his opponent that he himself will be harmed or will benefit if the intellectual’s definition of fairness is rejected or accepted. Even if the intellectual’s argument is sound—it may be true that his opponent will benefit in the way explained given the premises—this does not make fairness objective. It merely begs the question why the opponent believes why it is fair that he benefit.

No moral belief can ultimately rest on observations or on empirical evidence of any kind. But a moral principle can be true conditionally, but only given another or other principles that are first assumed true. This chain always leads back to the same starting point. For example, assume that the propriety of “same-sex marriage” follows from the principle “Prejudice is bad”; still, that principle itself had to be innately justified, or it was based upon other principles that were eventually innately justified.

Note very carefully that most of our moral principles and most of our notions of fairness are derived principles, arguments which are only true given that other, deeper beliefs are true. The number of base or bedrock moral principles we hold are actually very few.

All beliefs in fairness are ultimately “groundless” in the modern, scientistic sense, because they must all point back to something deeper, something built in, principles which just “feel right.” These cannot have come from evolution, because then we’d still have to justify the principle that principles based on evolution are moral, etc., an infinite regress. It is true and painful that what feels right to some does not feel right to others, and that these differences have accounted for spectacular events in history. But that does not mean that what felt right to any side was objectively justified.

There is only one solution. And that is if a set of true moral principles exists. These can be “aimed” at and true fairness found. Never mind how these arise or how these are true. Besides, if they are true, it is impossible to explain how they are true. As David Stove often said, you cannot explain how something that is necessarily true can be otherwise.

Don’t fall into the fallacy that because there are many disagreements on principles, that therefore all morality is relative (a self-negating statement). And don’t say that because some choose evil that there is no good (which is self-defeating counter-argument).

Many moderns feel extreme discomfort at asking these questions. They might be inclined to agree that true moral principles exist, but they don’t like where that notion leads.

Part II


  1. Bellisaurius

    Isn’t there a decent amount of research demonstrating reciprocity shows up fairly early in childhood development? It would seem to follow that fairness is a relatively well-grounded, or at least well accepted base moral.

    Attach reciprocity to empathy, which seems to show up around two months (I’m smiling at my new baby girl, and she smiles back, which demonstrates a certain reflection of another’s emotions), and a lot of current moral sentiment seems to arise: If it doesn’t hurt me in some demonstrable way, and makes you feel good, it should be allowed, which I guess is what most people end up thinking of as fair (it seems to be the derived part)

    I don’t neccessarily believe these to be “true” moral principles,by the way, but they are probably two of the deepest, and therefore, following them tends to be the easiest to justify on the intuitive level.

  2. JH

    Well, Mr. Briggs, your post tends to make me think a little more. How about posting food recipes sometimes? There is something very relaxing about reading recipes.

    What is a moral principle anyway? Does it have to do with p-values?

    Many polls have reported that among younger adults there is wider acceptance of gay rights and marriage. One has to wonder why this is the case. Have moral standards changed from one generation to the next? The younger adult generation grew up with different social experiences and has a different culture in a way.

    Perhaps there exit several moral principles, but how we assign a weight to each of the principles is related to our social experiences.

  3. jae

    We Christians don’t have to deal so much with such “fuzzy” logic. Beliefs can be very comforting.

  4. Brian

    Good discussion Briggs. Speaking of fundamental intuitions of fairness, such moral questions tie directly back to fundamental intuitions on existence itself.

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide].”

    – Albert Camus

    I happen to agree with Camus, though I disagree with the majority of his other philosophical conclusions. If one continues the line of inquiry on what constitutes “fairness”, one will, by needs, eventually confront the fundamental question about the telos and value of life itself. How that question is answered will pretty well determine what definitions of “fairness” one will eventually accept or reject.

  5. xoc

    You make a lot of excellent points, but if I am understanding you correctly, you then diverge off into the idea that there actually is a “true morality” to be aimed at… completely contradicting your previous paragraph’s well reasoned perceptions!

    You hint at crux of the problem without stating it: There is no objective morality. There is a subjective sense of right and wrong, but this is unique to every individual.

    Many people find this terrifying. They worry that if they can’t control what others think of as right and wrong then anarchy and chaos will reign and therefore they will be unsafe. This is a big part of the appeal of religion. It is a way of achieving some sort of consensus on how to treat each-other. The problem is, who gets to write the rules for the religion, and why is their morality superior to any individual’s?

  6. I seem to disagree with what @ xoc said:

    “[many people] worry that if they can’t control what others think of as right and wrong then anarchy and chaos will reign….”

    There may be those among us so fretful of this factor they seem consumed by worry, but in my view most people instinctively understand there are too many among us lacking an adequate understanding of “right and wrong” for there ever to be any sense of “control” over others. That dream could only exist in the mind of the socially naive. Or progressive liberals. But I repeat myself.

  7. Briggs


    I do indeed hint that there is a true morality to be aimed at, but it is no contradiction. I cannot prove it empirically, nor can I prove it based on simpler, more obviously true, premises. Just as I cannot prove that any base believe (such as mathematical axioms, etc.) are true. They are true only because I feel they are, because, referring to my instinct, they just seem true; further, nothing I know contradicts them.

    That there are subjective senses of right and wrong is empirically seen as true. But just because there are subjective senses does not, however, imply that there does not exist a true morality.

    Such is life: all we know is based on that which we must take for granted. Everything rests on faith, like it or not.

  8. Briggs


    Cultural versions of empathy might well develop when you say (I accept it). But regardless where or how any person learns a rule of fairness (or any other moral rule), it is independent of the question of whether that rule is ultimately fair or moral. The same regress is there, too: why did the adults teach the kids these and not those rules? Etc.

  9. Wayne

    Reminds me of a story my uncle just told me. He teaches a morality class at a college and he told me that almost every student coming in the door believes they are a relativist: there are no absolutes, all morality is situational and relative.

    He then subjects them to an exercise that he copied from a famous professor (whose name I forget): after the first test, which he grades fairly and places positive comments on, he gives every student an F. The students howl, “That’s unfair! You said we did well and we got a high percentage of the questions right, how could you give us F’s?” To which the reply is, “Because I wanted to.”

    Sort of one of those Zen moments.

  10. xoc


    > there are too many among us lacking an adequate understanding of “right and wrong”

    Adequate for who?

  11. xoc


    “I think, therefore I am” does not require faith, and therefore it is a solid foundation on which to build an evidence based view of our reality.

    Faith may be a convenient and hard to break habit, but it is without foundation by definition. It was once taken on faith than the Earth was flat, and the universe rotated around us. No doubt much of what we currently “know” will also be discredited down the track.

    Morality is a personal thing. We don’t need other people to confirm our morality to give it validity, just as we can’t invalidate anyone else’s.

  12. tom

    >>Just as I cannot prove that any base believe (such as mathematical axioms, etc.) are true. They are true only because I feel they are, because, referring to my instinct, they just seem true; further, nothing I know contradicts them.

    An axiom is a starting point for reasoning. An axiomatic system is CLEARLY DEFINED and used to logically derived theorems. It is taken for granted as true, but the absolute truth of axioms is considered irrelevant in the context of modern mathematics. Can you define your instinct CLEARLY and UNQUESTIONABLY? No.

  13. Stephen J.

    I was always a big fan of C.S. Lewis’s image of morality as a fleet of ships sailing to a destination. In order for all the ships to arrive safely, all the captains have to agree where they are sailing to (aspirational morality); they have to all agree how to sail so as not to crash into one another (relational morality); and they have to all maintain their own vessels in sufficient condition so as not to sink or crash into one another involuntarily (character morality).

    The flaw with most relativist morality, he argues in this image, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the second level (how to keep the ships from crashing on a day to day basis) and assumes that there is no right or need to demand any agreement on the first level (where the fleet is going) or enforce any standards on the third level beyond an absolute minimum (it doesn’t matter what bad shape your ship is in, or even whether you scuttle it yourself, as long as it doesn’t crash into mine). It therefore misses the point that all the regulations in the world about interpersonal behavior cannot on their own address either a fundamental irreconcileable disagreement over values, or create the virtue necessary to obey those regulations consistently.

    If one honestly does not believe that such irreconcileable differences of value need really exist, or that humans are basically good enough that the minimum necessary virtue doesn’t need to be inculcated first by a culture based on those values before it can be sustained by law, then relativist morality may seem perfectly adequate to the cause — but I myself have to admit that such a position seems tragically naïve.

  14. Andrew Farquharson

    Hello there, and greetings from Katoomba in New South Wales, which is unusually crowded due to the Easter long weekend, which means that it took much longer than usual to be served in my accustomed cafe. I think that’s not fair.

    A little girl once said “That’s not fair!” to me. I had a simple response. I said “What does the word “fair” mean?”

    She had no idea and couldn’t tell me. I suppose that the phrase “It’s not fair” really is just code for “I want X and I don’t care why not”, or something similar.

    Every day I see appalling examples of inadequate parenting, especially mothering, such as really well grown, post-pram kids being pushed around in prams, or even being carried in slings. God alone knows why, as the Islamic historian as-Suyuti said was a fair thing to say when you have no idea about something.

    All the best for the Resurrected-Grain-God festival, oops, I mean Easter.

  15. Mankind’s principal problem — and yes, I really mean that — is our tendency to conflate our desires for particular outcomes with an abstraction such as “fairness” or “justice.” The vipers of the world exploit that tendency relentlessly to whip up querulous mass movements: what Madison had in mind when he spoke warningly of “factions.” And of course we know how frustrated children deploy it. The two cases aren’t that far apart.

    A previous commenter mentioned C.S. Lewis’s metaphor for justice, which put me in mind of his great essay, “The Abolition of Man.” Lewis insisted, correctly in my view, that unless Reason is grounded in the Tao, the metaphysically unalterable reality that incorporates all natural law, it is pointless or dangerous. You can reach any imaginable conclusion with logic if you choose the right (i.e., the wrong) postulates. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Logic is an organized way of going wrong with confidence.”

    “Fair” is like that. What postulates underlie Smith’s statement that something or other “isn’t fair” — ? Does Jones share those postulates? If not, would he reach the same conclusion as Smith? And how would we decide which gentleman’s logical track is “correct?”

    A deceased friend of mine dismissed “fair” ab initio: “It’s just a sound humans make.” He had his own postulates, of course: that everyone is in it for himself, and that a man will tell you whatever he thinks he can sell you, without regard for the truth, if he thinks it will get him what he wants. I’m not quite that cynical…but it still raises all my danger flags when the word “fair” is introduced into a commercial negotiation, a discussion of public policy, or anything else affecting my daughters, my ducats, or my good name.

  16. Sera

    Happy Easter Mr. Briggs.

  17. Sanderr van der Wal

    If fairness isn’t working as an argument for same-sex marriage, then you have a bad argument, and not a bad case the argument is supposed to be support.

    A different argument might be able to support that case.

    Here the supporting argument is that consenting adults should be free to act as they please, as long as their acts do not violate the rights of other people. The only thing fair about this argument is that it is fair if all adults have exactly the same rights. And obligations. So, it is fair is same sex couples have the same rights and obligations as hetero-sexual couples. The right to marry is not because of fairness, but because of the right of consenting adults to do as they please.

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