Monday, January 3, 2011

On Fairness and Deserving

1. I am not a pundit, an economist, a sociologist, an anthropologist, or a professional or student in the fields of history or ethics, nor do I have an in-depth understanding of how most non-American, non-Western societies of the world work. Don't read my words as if I'm pretending to be or have any such things.
2. You probably aren't (and don't) either, so if you think I'm off the mark, you probably should keep it to yourself, lest you either (a) make yourself look like a self-righteous tool, and/or (b) expose yourself to the criticism of the thousands of readers my blog has daily.
2b. Really, the blog has exactly 5 readers that I know of, but they'll still chew you up one side and down the other if you flame me, because they're my friends.
3. This entry is heavily fragmented and parenthesized, and was edited with minimal correction of the flow of thought with which it was written. Deal with it.
4. [standard blog disclaimer]

I had a little discussion with my kids in the car over the past weekend, in which I tried to explain a tenet of the world every parent is forced to eventually admit or vainly try to hide: life isn't fair. I elaborated by saying that most people (globally, anyway) have far less than they deserve, while a few people have a great deal more (in some cases, vastly so).

Which begs the question: is the concept of deserving anything even valid?

My desktop dictionary defines the word DESERVE to mean "to be worth of; merit." goes a little further:

    de·serve [dih-zurv] verb, -served, -serv·ing. –verb (used with object) 1. to merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities, or situation: to deserve exile; to deserve charity; a theory that deserves consideration. –verb (used without object) 2. to be worthy of, qualified for, or have a claim to reward, punishment, recompense, etc.: to reward him as he deserves; an idea deserving of study.
For the purposes of this discussion, we'll be going with the first definition, "used with object."

We've already started the discussion at a basic level: a definition. For the moment, we'll keep it just that simple. My daughter, who is seven years old, understands what it means to deserve something as well as she'll ever need to. Indeed, what child does not occasionally exclaim to his/her parent "IT'S NOT FAIR!"? Kids do this because they've been taught by their environments that each person in a more or less equivalent position (siblings, in my example) has a right to expect more or less equivalent goods and services. This idea doesn't get any more complicated above the minor sibling level: it is universal in not only minivans and households, but workplaces, neighborhoods, governments, etc.

Of course, these environments in which kids learn that this is a reasonable expectation has, in almost every case, been falsely created and maintained by parents (you, me, them, and even our own). If my brother Johnny gets a piece of chocolate, I ought to get one too. If his is bigger than mine, I have a right to question it, and get justifiably upset if the heinous injustice isn't corrected. These are fundamental truths in society and are well understood by all humans under the age of, well, two hundred. Of course some societies, families, etc., have evolved to suppress this behaviour (bless them!), but those are definitely the exception as opposed to the rule, and so are not being considered for this discussion.

Even above the parent/child/family level, anyone who's grown up with this innate sense of justice intact thinks this is as natural as turning around to see someone who is behind you. As adults, the expectation is perpetuated by human management of almost every kind.

So how is it, then, that the world has turned into a place where a tiny fraction of the world's population controls such a huge portion of its resources?

(This is a rhetorical question for which I have no explanation. I'm sure, somewhere out there, there are political scientists and economists who could explain it to me, but that isn't the point. I suppose the statement of the question to begin with is merely my own voicing of "IT'S NOT FAIR!")

We regularly live and work in an adult world where the exploitation of inequities between this one and that one are accepted, perpetuated, and forgotten about. So why do we tell our children that, and even act ourselves as if, this isn't true? Because deep down, we know the kids are right. Aren't they?

Even the founders of the government of the greatest modern Democracy on the planet penned it into their charter document: "...all men are created equal..." Well, see there? All *men* are created equal. All white men that is. All white men above a certain age, who own a certain amount of property. Now we're getting into the answer to that rhetorical question... but again it's beside the point. The point is, somebody tried to make the statement generically true to a generically large extent.

But it can't be true.

This excerpt from the Declaration of Independence only speaks to the ideal we'd all like to believe: that when a person exits the womb (or before, based on other beliefs you may or may not have... I'm tangent-crazy here!), he or she is (more excerpts here) "endowed...with inalienable rights..." This is based on the assumption that every person has equal faculties and resources. That notion, of course, is absurd (but you can't tell a budding nation of colonists pissed off at King George III that, can you?)

Let me set you straight, now, on my own beliefs. What I've said so far is that no two people, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise, are alike in what they want, what they can do, or what they have available to do it with. If they were, we'd be like one of those utopian planets from a Star Trek episode. And that's just silly. When people make broad comments about being created equal and such, they are drawing a line of expectation to which everyone will be considered, even if a person's natural position in faculties and resources places them below that line. In such a case (theoretically), allowances are made to compensate for the difference. Even when theory doesn't provide (and when does it ever, when acting alone?), everyone acts as if everyone protected under Jefferson's masterpiece is the same. I understand and appreciate the intent here, as ignorant as the assumption is.

Let me also set you straight on this. Though I'm quoting the Declaration of Independence as evidence that the concept of "deserving" is universal, I'm not just talking about America or Americans, even though we/they do seem to embody the concept of entitlement quite well. Just as all children laugh when feeling joy no matter where or how they're raised, all people feel this inside them. Look at any revolution or civil war that's ever occured in any nation at any period in human history, and try to tell me otherwise.

It is my own personal belief that every person ought to be able to explore, and consequently pursue, whatever it is that makes him/her happy, so long as it doesn't hinder anyone else from doing the exact same thing. To an extent, this is largely the case, thousands of laws notwithstanding, both in the home of the brave and abroad. Who among us doesn't know people who see themselves as living below (or above) their standards, even if those standards seem an extreme of largess or poverty to others? I know men who makes ten times my salary and never seem to be satisfied with their lifestyle, and some who make less than a third who are happier than I think I've ever been. I'm willing to bet that whether or not a person thinks he/she is getting what he/she "deserves" corresponds more to how satisfied said person is with what he/she already has than how much money he/she makes, how much stuff he/she has, or his/her social position.

My crudely drawn conclusions here are that
(1) nobody really deserves anything,
(2) everybody has to make their own way in whatever life they've been given,
(3) real happiness is attainable almost irregardless of the life anyone's been given,
(4) a person's happiness depends more on that person's perspective than his/her abundance or lack thereof, and
(5) with the right attitude and resources, any person can change his/her surroundings sufficiently to gain the privelege of re-evaluating his/her own happiness.

As to the question of how one acquires the resources mentioned in conclusion 5, see the above rhetorical question earlier in the post. Live long and prosper.


  1. Hrmm, I wonder if the confusion (especially from kids) comes from the fact that 'equality' is being explained in place of 'fairness'.

    When S exclaims that it's "Not fair!" that B's piece of chocolate cake is bigger than hers, even though her piece is the size of her head, she's really complaining that they're "not the same size." The piece is, in fact, a VERY fair size for her and for B, especially as neither will finish their own piece anyway ;P (You will, of course, understand my analogy and extend it to other situations, such as "She had an extra life on the Wii!", "He has an extra piece of candy!")

    I think you touch a little on the thoughts that are coming into my mind: Not every man needs (or deserves) to live in a 5-storey mansion; not every family needs the same allocation of food and fuel; maybe some people deserve more perks (more money, leisure time, bigger house, etc) as a reward for completing more difficult/dangerous/demanding/disgusting work than I do. This brings me to what you were saying about the poorer/happier vs. richer/unhappy peeps. I think *this* comes back to the definition of 'fair', where it could mean, "The minimum amount of X (be it products or services) required to satisfy need Y" (underlining 'need' there ;) ). You have a fairly sized piece of chocolate cake because it's more than you'll be able to eat, and it's irrelevant that dad's slice is bigger; his tummy's bigger than yours!

    I think this is a difficult or nigh impossible thing to properly explain to kids just because their world is all id (you said it yourself that S understands it as much as she needs to ;) ). S understands equality: she can count how many lollies she and her brothers have and that they have more, but it might be harder for her to see that even though they have 150 each and she only has 100, it's MORE than sufficient to make her puke and wish she never even had ONE to begin with. I'm sure A can understand this, and possibly even B is old enough to start understanding it (correct me if I'm wrong, of course; even S might see that, but still want the 50 outstanding candies ;) ).

    This also reminds me of the time when S was 2/3 and we were in the car just after you got the DVD player, and there'd been this whole big thing where we'd been trying to encourage her to say please and thank you, and she kept asking us to put the DVD player on and ya'all said 'no', even when she was in tears, exclaiming 'please' like the magical word it was supposed to be to make adults do shit for you. Oh nostalgia :) (Also, don't use that description of 'please' in your writing, because I'm going to use it! ;P )

    (Also, I can't help but feel like some (most?) of those disclaimers where targeted squarely at me :P Maybe I just have a guilty mind?)

  2. More to come on the rest of your reflections; you seem to understand very well what I'm thinking, and bring lots of new insight. But on your disclaimer paranoia, you are most squarely wrong, sir. I am trying to preemptively squash anything people may say in disagreement, if they choose to do so flamingly. I know the more "out there" and opinionated I get, the more mouthy I seem, and the more risk I take in encountering other opinionated people with less regard to what their business is and is not than I like to have for myself.

    Also, reading this (link below) really had an impact on me, or rather, the depth to which some of the critics who left comments had an impact. Not that I ever think anything I write will get such attention, but if it did, I never want it said that I didn't warn you poor saps before you read my dribble. I suppose, though, that anyone who reads my blog and thinks I'm trying to be a know-it-all simply isn't getting the point, which would actually be kind of laughable given some of the content. Anyway, cheers, my friend.