What’s So Great About Fairness Anyway?

True or false: You would strangle a roomful of strangers to save your child's life.

In Against Fairness (released last fall), philosophy professor Stephen Asma suggests that bias—or the impulse to favor those closest to us over strangers—is a beneficial evolutionary trait that has been given short shrift in the U.S., where we honor egalitarianism and frown upon nepotism.

According to Asma—who sees fairness as an unnatural tendency in humans, with no precedent in history, art or even religion—that’s something we might want to reconsider. After all, he says, even Jesus had a favorite disciple. According to Asma:

“People are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources or moral duties … . It seems dubious to say that we should transcend tribe and be utilitarian because all people are equal, when the equal status of strangers and kin is an unproven and counter-intuitive assumption.”

On the contrary, Asma argues that human children are genetically predisposed to form preferential attachments from an early age. A psychological tendency to treat everyone equally, Asma suggests, is evidence of incomplete bonding, making fair-mindedness a kind of biological deformity.

To drill his point home, Asma recalls telling the audience at an ethics lecture he once gave that he would “strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son’s life.” Not being a father myself, I can’t say I identify with that particular pathology, but I’ll wager there are readers out there who share Asma’s sentiment (even if they wouldn’t say so). The bonds between parent and child, husband and wife, and brother and sister are powerful and, most of the time, supremely irrational.  But shouldn’t that kind of impulse be suppressed in a mass society founded on democratic principles? Great thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls have said “yes,” but Asma doesn’t seem to think so.

He says the West’s love affair with egalitarianism grew out of an unnatural enlightenment-era desire to develop a “science of ethics” by applying Newtonian principles of natural order to human interaction. But according to Asma, there is nothing inherently “ethical” about egalitarianism, which simply forces humans to straddle two equally powerful forces—one innate and biological, the other contrived. Anyway, doing the “right thing” for one person or group, he says, often means doing the “wrong thing” for another.

As an example he offers the problem of a public official charged with building a new youth center who is forced to choose between a slate of qualified contractors and his brother, who cares for a chronically ill daughter. According to Asma, the official can do the “ethical” thing and establish a completely impartial bidding system, or do the “right” thing and give the job to his kin. In this case, being a good citizen means being a bad brother.

To be clear, Asma doesn’t appear to be advocating replacing our democratic traditions with a free-for-all of nepotistic favoritism; he simply intends to “dethrone” egalitarian fairness as the “standard of Western ethical life.”

“The main ingredient in human happiness is not wealth, prosperity, pleasure or fame but strong social bonds,” he writes. I’ll buy that; but Asma’s nostalgia for the kind of in-group loyalty unique to small, homogenous, clan-based societies simply doesn’t translate well to a large multicultural, multi-ethnic country like America.

And while Asma places high value on Asian “face” culture—where familial ties and a highly nuanced system of protocol determines who deserves deference and who does not—it’s been suggested that such rigid, hierarchical systems of interaction can produce some potentially tragic consequences in circumstances that would be better served by merit-based impartiality.

I agree with the author in principle: Our near religious reverence of egalitarianism has led to some asinine policies, particularly for school children (remember when you actually had to win the race to get a trophy?) But Stephen Asma’s suggestion that we retreat to a simpler time, when tribal loyalty trumped humanistic notions of equity  is little more than a quaint fantasy that would likely have dire consequences if applied in America today.