Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.


Lately, I've been thinking a great deal about fairness. It seems rather appropriate, seeing as how the holidays seems to bring this "virtue" to the forefront of our thoughts and conversation, with the Salvation Army bell-ringers and cocktail talk about the "magic of Christmas" and "those less fortunate".

So, back to fairness. What exactly is it?

It seems like an important characteristic of fairness is that there are some standards of fairness, and then some voluntary, deliberate compliance to those defined, fair, standards. Unfortunately, this seems to present a few complications.

First, it doesn't seem to be getting to the root of the question: what are those fair, defined, standards? Are they inherent, or are they decided upon? If they are inherent, are they obvious or are they a dictate from a higher power like god, or a law? If they are decided upon, who decides them, and are standards of fairness consistent throughout the state, region, nation, or world?

Also, it seems really sucky to think that our natural state would is not to be "fair", but rather we must take effort to be "fair". It seems like something of a shot on the character on humanity to comment that our natural state is not one of "fairness". Our "conception" of fairness is that just humans are "fair" or "just" or something or another like that. Think of it this way, wouldn't it seem sort of uncool if someone like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi had to try unbelievably hard to be good people? If that was the case, then it seems like there wouldn't be much hope for the rest of us if two of the people we think that are most pure in the world were half-a-care away from being average in their amount of fairness.

After deliberating about these two clauses of fairness and addressing some of their problems, where does it leave us?

Well, for starters, what should we even think of as constituting acting fairly? Should we form discussion groups and reach a consensus?...Probably not. Something very attractive about fairness as a "virtue" as opposed to a "principle" (I'll get into the details about this difference I see in a bit) is that it seems like everyone should be able to understand what something "fair" is.
In defense, is it really that hard to distinguish between what is fair and what isn't? In the words of Justice Potter Stewart in his commentary of pornography/obscenity..."I know it when I see it". Is divvying up a pie into equal pieces fair or not fair? Fair, obviously. Is an athlete doping fair or unfair? Unfair, obviously. I must admit though there are many situations in which fairness is unclear, and unfortunately for me, it sort of breaks apart this line of argument. It seems to me, in the cases were the stakes are rather high, the idea of fairness is pretty occluded. Take for the example of the death penalty (or other examples of retributive punishment), or committing a crime of opportunity, which doesn't have any discernible harm to anyone (like say stealing $20 from a billionaire's desk drawer). What is fair in these cases? I don't know. But, at least there are many obvious examples of fairness.