The Virtue of FairnessDONALD DEMARCO
It may very well be that the first moral judgment a child utters is “That’s not fair!” Virtually all studies on the subject report that children as young as four already have an active and flourishing sense of fairness.
The difference between fairness and justice, though subtle, is pivotal in the area of virtue education. A firm grasp of fairness is needed before one can go on to gain a proper appreciation of the value of justice.
No fairness in the Bible?
Sacred Scripture offers us little help in making this distinction. “Fairness” does not appear in the Bible. The term “fair” appears many times, though usually without a moral meaning. For the most part, it describes someone or something that is comely, beautiful, well-constructed, or placid. In Job 42:15, we read, “[N]o women so fair as Job’s daughters.” In Song of Songs 6:10, the bride is praised as being “fair as the moon, bright as the sun.” In Numbers 24:5, the author exclaims, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob!” In Acts 27:8, St. Paul arrives at a safe port on the southern coast of Crete that is named Fair Havens.
There is but one exception to the non-moral use of the word “fair.” In both Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:27, Christ tells the Canaanite woman that “[i]t is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The Greek word employed in both these texts is kalóv, which is sometimes translated as “right” rather than “fair.” kalóv is a versatile word and can also describe that which is beautiful, good, or proper. Yet “fair” in these two passages is not distinguishable from “right” or “just.”
How is being fair different from being just? And why is this difference important? Fairness differs from justice in three important ways. It is broader, more elementary, and less formal than justice.
Fairness has a much broader range of applicability than justice. It can refer to the beautiful (My Fair Lady), the civil (fair words), the good (a fair crop), or the unobstructed (the fairway). In meteorology, it distinguishes fair from bad weather; in baseball, a fair from a foul ball; in business, a fair shake from a shady deal; in law, a fair trial from a kangaroo court. The utility of fairness is extensive because it is an easier concept to grasp than justice. It applies to the cosmos as well as to children at play.
The fact that youngsters use the word “fair” long before they employ the word “just” is a good indication that the concept of fairness is more elementary than that of justice. It may very well be that the first moral judgment a child utters is “That’s not fair!” Virtually all studies on the subject report that children as young as four already have an active and flourishing sense of fairness. Accompanying their strong sense of fairness is their intense disdain for cheating, cutting in line, grabbing more than one’s share, and taking unfair advantage of others.
Justice can be highly complex and legalistic. It lends itself quite naturally to being institutionalized. Lawyers, judges, and other professionals who defend and uphold the law require a great deal of training. Fairness, by contrast, is not nearly as formal. In fact, a sense of fairness seems to be quite spontaneous and natural. The unschooled can easily appreciate the need for fairness. On the other hand, one who is highly educated in the field of jurisprudence may lose sight of fairness’ basic value. Justice Comes Later.
These three characteristics — broader, more elementary, less formal — give fairness certain practical advantages over justice in the area of virtue education. Since children have such a natural and keen appreciation for fairness, it would seem reasonable to affirm and cultivate that sense in them as much as possible. In so doing, children would be better prepared to develop a richer understanding and appreciation for justice. Just as the broad comes before the specific, the elementary anticipates the complex, and the informal is prior to the formal, a sense of fairness precedes a sense of justice.
In practice, adults can help young people to cultivate a sharper sense of justice not only by honoring their sense of fairness, but especially by being good examples of fairness themselves. We speak of a Chief Justice or a Justice of the Peace, but we do not speak of a Chief Fairness of a Fairness of the Peace. There is something innocent and down-to-earth about the language of fairness. It does not need professionals or manuals. It appeals to people’s innate sense of sociability and their admirable willingness to temper self-interest for the sake of friendship.
Two economists, Elizabeth Hoffman and Matthew Spitzer, gave pairs of college students an intriguing choice. By the flip of a coin, one member of the pair would earn the privilege of choosing either to receive $12 (while his partner would receive nothing) or $14, provided he and his partner agreed in advance how they would split the larger sum. The economists found that fairness, rather than self-interest, prevailed. The students decided in advance that they would split the $14 evenly. They obviously believed that a flip of a coin was not a fair way of allocating unequal benefits. At the same time, this preference for fairness does much to affirm amicability. The choice to be fair is also a choice not to allow self-interest to compromise sociability.
If justice has to do with law, fairness has to do with the heart. Members of a family can be fair to each other without ever having recourse to the language of justice. But those who are well schooled in the informal art of fairness will make excellent candidates for the more formal art of justice.
DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Fairness.” Lay Witness (September, 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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