From the school yard to the workplace, there’s no charge more damning than “You’re being unfair!” Born out of democracy and raised in our open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics—Lady Justice—wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges tFrom the school yard to the workplace, there’s no charge more damning than “You’re being unfair!” Born out of democracy and raised in our open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics—Lady Justice—wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity. In Against Fairness, polymath philosopher Stephen T. Asma drags them triumphantly back into the light. Through playful, witty, but always serious arguments and examples, he vindicates our unspoken and undeniable instinct to favor, making the case that we would all be better off if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness—indeed, if we favored favoritism. Conscious of the egalitarian feathers his argument is sure to ruffle, Asma makes his point by synthesizing a startling array of scientific findings, historical philosophies, cultural practices, analytic arguments, and a variety of personal and literary narratives to give a remarkably nuanced and thorough understanding of how fairness and favoritism fit within our moral architecture. Examining everything from the survival-enhancing biochemistry that makes our mothers love us to the motivating properties of our “affective community,” he not only shows how we favor but the reasons we should. Drawing on thinkers from Confucius to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, he reveals how we have confused fairness with more noble traits, like compassion and open-mindedness. He dismantles a number of seemingly egalitarian pursuits, from class-wide Valentine’s Day cards to civil rights, to reveal the envy that lies at their hearts, going on to prove that we can still be kind to strangers, have no prejudice, and fight for equal opportunity at the same time we reserve the best of what we can offer for those dearest to us. Fed up with the blue-ribbons-for-all absurdity of “fairness” today, and wary of the psychological paralysis it creates, Asma resets our moral compass with favoritism as its lodestar, providing a strikingly new and remarkably positive way to think through all our actions, big and small. ...
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Against Fairness Reviews
A good poke at the overly exalted position of the concept of fairness, along with a defense of favoritism. Very thought-provoking. A great challenge to many of my assumptions. Read this after reading an Asma essay in the NYT blog.
This book is a bit of a counterpoint to another one I previously read, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (they weren't written for that purpose, but that's how it worked out in my reading). Now, I thought this book would intone against the sort of "fairness" demanded by a fourth-grade teacher in some government left-wing brain-washing operation (aka. "public school"), insisting that all outcomes must be equal, or some bureaucrat who somehow things affirmative action is "fair"--now that's a book I could get behind! But Asma's book could just as easily have been titled "for favoritism." And he's REALLY for it. So much so that he can write things like "Lying to strangers to advantage kin is not a major sin in my book." He favors favoritism so much that his morality has gone off the rails. Part of this is likely an overreaction to his upbringing in Catholicism, a faith he now repudiates. Not that he ever grasped the faith all that well--he somehow twists John 3:16 to see it as reason some people "care more for a faraway African tribe than their own family," even going so far as to accuse God of "transcendentally bad parenting." This is a bit ironic, because the sort of gospel that John 3:16 should have been evidence for his case, for God is surely not interested in "fairness" as clamored for by the sort of people demanding $50M from Yale for another minority student center. And yet he totally misses the point.I made it through this book and really came to one conclusion: Stephen Asma will love you if your his friend, but if not, you're up the creek.
Wow! Who could be against fairness?Well, Stephen Asma, the author of "Against Fairness", is. He claims that Fairness has become muddled with a sense of effusive empathy, so that Equal OUTCOMES has often become the goal of public policy: School kids these days have to send a valentine to every other kid in the class. Everybody gets a cupcake. Everybody wins a prize for running the race. Nobody's feelings get hurt. The author doesn't like this trend. He argues that this confused sense of Fairness has distorted policies such as Affirmative Action. But Asma goes further. He says Nepotism, which often congers up the idea of corruption, is actually behavior than benefits your group or tribe and that nepotism is a more fundamental part of human social behavior than even reciprocity.The basic agument against absolute equality made by Libertarians and many Conservatives is that people are equal before the law but otherwise they remain in competition with each other. [Stephen Asma identifies himself as a Liberal].What is Fairness? For Jonathan Haidt (author of the study of Moral Foundations who is mentioned in the book) it is one of the two most important moral values that Liberals use to evaluate public policy. The other, Haidt calls "Caring". Conservatives tend to give three other values: Loyalty, Authority, and Purity, equal, if not greater, weight than to these first two. Jonathan Haidt contrasts Fairness with Cheating: some kind of illegal or unethical advantage that one person takes of another. So, in his mind Fairness means no hidden advantage.Political Philosopher John Rawls is at the heart of this dispute. He developed the current Liberal case for Justice as the "veil of ignorance": Make no public policy that doesn't identify and reject the special advantages that some people get without merit.Asma argues that kinship, nepotism, and favoritism are in fact the earliest moral positions of every human being in every culture. He'd likely score highest on Loyalty using Haidt's scale. I don't think making sure every kid in the classroom gets a valentine undermines a proper civic sense of Justice. Perhaps we can't "love all of humanity" as Asma claims the "Neo-Hippies" maintain, but I do think empathy is broad enough to include a school classroom. And, yes, I do think a ribbon for everyone who ran the race is a little excessive. Asma says "complex grievances about social justice get reduced down to cries for greater "fairness" because we lack a more nuanced moral vocabulary". I think he's right about that.
While there were some interesting moments, I found this title to be ultimately disappointing. Perhaps I wax curmudgeonly here because I expected something different, those expectations being set by the title.In defining fairness as equal outcomes, the author posits himself as really going out on a limb by being against the forced distribution of equal outcomes. Hence the title, and the somewhat over-stated cover photo. Maybe at Columbia this is going out on a limb, but not so much in the broader meeting-place of ideas.Aside from the very informative and interesting, though short, section on the bio-chemical basis for favoritism, I found the remaining material and analysis to be a mixed bag. In specific, Asma takes a variety of international cross-cultural trips to show where favoritism and tribalism are beneficial, finally landing in the US to then ~support~ the motivations of almost every confiscation program since LBJ. He states he is "against fairness", but seemingly has no problem with taking and using other people's assets in order to address the perceived issues of less successful parties - for whatever they feel they are owed and for whatever reasons they feel they are owed. Bummer.Because of this contradiction, I found myself about 60% in and unable to articulate his basic point - a point that had seemed clear in the first 30% of the book. Whenever that has happened in the past, I've held myself accountable and gone back to piece things together. In this case alone, I actually held the writer accountable. His sub-points did not harmonize with one another, nor did they add up to a directed whole.In the end, I could not figure out who the audience was supposed to be, nor the central message to that audience.
I liked it, an interesting read. And I've heard an interview with him. Favoritism is in us. I suppose we ought not to deny it, but balance it with societal needs. And I agree with him that we need to be specific with the word 'fairness'.. it really does get used as a blanket term when we actually mean other things.
While I hated some parts of this book, I can't make too scathing a statement, because I have to begrudgingly admit it's not wholly awful. I still feel that it's flawed, however.An example of this tension is the treatment of racism and sexism. It's unmentioned for most of the book, but then a late section does address it. So it's not an awful blindspot as I thought early on, but that doesn't mean I accept the arguments given. I feel the justifications as to why the author isn't arguing favor of more racism and sexism are inadequate and consider only the easiest potential problems.The author is prone to a particular type of strawman where he frames all opposing positions at their most utopian, addresses thoughtless implementations of them, and insists that all opponents have zero sense of compromise or ambiguity on complex moral issues.Most annoying is a tendency to describe an opposing viewpoint, often with actual research, and then simply state "I don't agree and I think most people don't either." There's an undercurrent that the author believes most people wholly agree with him, and that this unproven fact should influence us against opposing arguments.There are some decent parts of the book where it talks about cultural or scientific facts. But once you remove the descriptions and anecdotes, not much of this book is actually arguments designed to convince someone who might disagree with the author.
Gandhi recommended that the seeker of good have no exclusive loves because they will introduce loyalty, partiality, bias and favoritism. To love everyone, we cannot preferentially love any individual or group. Orwell, however, believed that love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.The focus on equality of outcome may produce a generation burdened with an indignant sense of entitlement. 80% of success may be showing up, but then you've got to perform, no?By benefiting relatives, altruistic acts preserve the altruist's genes, even if he may not be the one to perpetuate them.Nature is not a war of all against all, but rather a war of us against them, with fierce intra-tribe loyalty.It's interesting to note how quickly a strict egalitarian notion of equal opportunity starts to break down when competence is introduced as a criterion.It's not logic or calculation that explains a friendship, but history.Biology can bind people together, but so can shared experiences, emotions, values and habits. And that unique contingent history prevents any transferability of friendship. You can't have substitute friends."Vice in abundance is easy to get; the road is smooth and begins beside you, but the gods have put sweat between us and virtue."Learning to curb selfishness is not the same as fairness. Greed is countered by generosity, but one can be unfairly generous, directing all of one's giving to a favoured few.Group favoritism does not automatically entail negative judgments towards out-groups, unless there is a forced dichotomy.High-minded notions (retributive justice, fairness) have roots in lower emotions (revenge, envy).Public morality (shame-based) VS private morality (guilt-based)What is owed to one another is respect, not equal affections or treatment. One only has finite time and attention to go around.Developing countries have a form of favoritism philanthropy, more focused charity efforts.Political empowerment movements are effective because a tribes gets powerful enough such that they can no longer be ignored, not by the implementation of some abstract egalitarian principle.Affirmative action badly executed means that preferred groups don't have to work hard, and non-preferred groups have no reward when they do.Pride can prevent you from graciously accepting help and can fill you with resentment instead of appreciation. It takes real effort and sensitivity to accept preferential treatment.The intimacy of favoritism brings personal character back to the forefront of ethics, where it belongs. (Caught, not taught)One can't love humanity, one can only love people (Graham Greene).Love, not fairness, is the engine of philanthropy.The digital world adds breadth, not depth to human connections, the exception being when you already have some depth with a friend in the real world and can enhance it in the digital realm.
A fun and thought-provoking poke at the prime cultural valuation of fairness versus favoritism.
A bit boring and many references to bible and Greek stories