Fairness

So, I’m teaching a class on Justice over at Roosevelt University in Chicago. It’s a bit surreal for me. When I was a student there I took it twice, once as an undergrad and once as a grad, in the first and last semesters I was there. It was a signiture course of Professor Ziliak, who is something of an iconoclast. I worry that my own version of the class will pail in comparison to his, but in the meantime I’m having fun with it. Anyways, the first assignment I gave the students was write a short paper, between 300 and 500 words, on the question “What is fair?” The twist is that the student is supposed to write as if addressing a child. A friend of mine (who adjuncted at Roosevelt for a couple years) remarked, when I told him about the assignment I was planning, that I would have to write a version of my own. So I did. Here it is:

Sometimes we say something is not fair. We might say this about something we are doing ourselves, or thing we saw someone else do. We might feel very strong about it, even if we do not know why. Everybody will say something is unfair at one time or another. It is normal and natural. But because everyone will think something unfair at one time or another it is important for us to understand what we mean by the word “fair.”

First, if we say something is fair or unfair, we are saying that we care about it. Not everyone cares about the same things, or in the same way. What might seem fair to one person will seem unfair to another. We have to think carefully about what we mean by fair so that we can talk to other people about it.

Second, when we think about fairness, we have to use our imagination. When we do something – play a game, take a trip, talk to a friend, read a story – we often imagine what will happen before it happens. Many times, if things don’t go the way we thought they would, we think it’s unfair. Sometimes, we will decide something is unfair before we know why, and then find a reason afterwards. This can be dangerous, because our imagination is powerful. We might make up a reason why something is unfair and then refuse to believe anything else. A person who says that anything that doesn’t go their way is unfair is a person who is hard to talk to, to play or work with, or to care about. If we want people to care about us, we need to be able to talk about what fair means.

So how can we know if something is fair? Imagine you are doing something you care about and it doesn’t go the way you want. What would make it okay? When is it okay to lose a game? Did everyone play their best and by the rules? Then it’s okay.

Things are not always fair. Sometimes things don’t go our way, it’s unfair, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When this happens it is important to know how to forgive. Sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes they do the wrong thing on purpose. Sometimes they’ll say they’re sorry, and sometimes they won’t. Either way it’s important to forgive them. If we’re angry or hurt about something that isn’t fair and we don’t forgive the person who made us feel that way we can end up carrying the anger and hurt around with us and it can make it hard to be happy or to care about the people who care about us. It is not fair to ourselves to carry around our anger and hurt, and that’s why its important to know how to forgive.

What is fair and unfair can be confusing, but its important to know how to talk about what fair means. When we care about something we’re doing, we will want it to be fair. People care about different things, so we must be able to talk about fairness so we don’t get confused. If things don’t go our way but we feel okay anyways, it might be fair. It’s always okay to ask a friend what they think. And whatever happens, remember that sometimes people do things that aren’t fair, and when they do, we must forgive them, out of fairness to ourselves.

(When I wrote that it was in a notebook, without a word counter. Once I typed it out I discovered it was 580 words, a bit over the limit I assigned. I’m pretty sure it could be improved, but I’ll leave it as is.)

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