Oliver Munday for The Chronicle Review
"But Dad, that's not fair! Why does Keaton get to kill zombies, and I can't?"
"Well, because you're too young to kill zombies. Your cousin Keaton is older than you, so that's why he can do it. You'll get nightmares."
"That's sooo not fair!"
"Next year, after your birthday, I'll let you kill zombies."
It's not exactly Little House on the Prairie, but this is a real conversation between my 8-year-old son and me. Age-ratings on zombie-killing video games are just one of modern life's great injustices, according to my son.
Every parent has heard the f-word, fairness, intoned ad nauseam by their negotiating kids. My own son was an eloquent voice for egalitarianism, even before he could tie his shoes or tell time. Of course, it's not exactly universal equality that he and other kids are lobbying for, but something much more self-interested.
Kids learn early on that an honest declaration of "I'm not getting what I want" holds little persuasion for parents. So they quickly figure out how to mask their egocentric frustrations with the language of fairness. An appeal to an objective standard of fairness will at least buy some bargaining time for further negotiations. This is not entirely duplicitous on the part of the child, who is often legitimately confused and cannot easily distinguish his private sufferings from larger and clearer social imbalances.
Fairness, however, is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice, nor is it the best measure of our social lives. As a philosopher, I've noticed a tremendous amount of conceptual confusion in our use of fairness. And though we're hearing a lot of the language of fairness hurled around lately in political rhetoric, it often hinders real conversation and debate more than it helps. Most people, for example, assume that the opposite of fairness is selfishness, and since selfishness is manifestly terrible, no one but a hapless Ayn Rand devotee would be so foolish as to critique fairness. But the real opposite of fairness is favoritism—filial, tribal, nepotistic partiality—not egoistic selfishness. If that's true, then a lot of us—on the left and the right—are unwitting daily sinners against fairness. And that's not a bad thing.
Having favorites and having an open mind about differences are not mutually exclusive.
We confuse our kids and ourselves about fairness. Most of the stories of children's culture pull a sleight-of-hand trick. They regularly address two worthy qualities that every child should cultivate—sharing and open-mindedness (toward people who are different). But while we all approve of the great virtues of sharing and diversity, we are informed that these are matters of fairness and equality—which, in point of fact, they are not.
Reducing a child's greediness is not the same as making her egalitarian. One can eliminate greed entirely and still remain preferential with one's goods, one's time, and one's affection. Like the characters in many kid's stories, our children are encouraged to spread the wealth, whether it be money, magic beans, or candy.
Greed is a terrible vice, and generosity must be cultivated in order to counteract it. But a child should not be expected to distribute her wealth to just anyone on the playground. Even if she has enough candy for the whole playground population, each kid does not have a moral claim on her to receive some candy. A child might be so generous, in fact, that she gives away all her candy and does not retain some for herself. But the quality of her generosity—the strength of her virtue—is not compromised by the fact that she gave it all to her five friends. She is still a very generous kid. A person might give everything she has, in fact, to one other person and thereby show profound generosity. This demonstrates the independence of generosity (or sharing) from fairness, even though the two are often conflated in our cultural conversation. A person can be both highly generous and highly biased at the same time. Being in favor of favoritism, then, is not being against sharing.
Teaching kids to share and calling it fairness is at best a confusion and at worst a deception. A similar bait-and-switch in contemporary childhood education is teaching kids to appreciate diversity but erroneously calling this virtue of open-mindedness fairness. Those two values are so commonly confused that any critique is immediately met with charges of prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, and bigotry. But having favorites and having an open mind about differences are not mutually exclusive.
Obviously xenophobia needs addressing and fixing in schools. But a popular training curriculum in Europe, "Diversity and Equity in Early Childhood Training," follows American schools in equating open-mindedness with fairness, and it sees all tribal tendencies as the enemy. Favoritism and bias are demonized and treated as equivalent to bigotry. For example, the manual recommends exercises for kids using an "anti-bias persona doll." The anti-bias persona doll started in America but has also been embraced in European diversity training. The method uses dolls of various ethnic appearances to tell stories of mistreatment. Kids are asked to help rectify scenarios wherein the persona has suffered some prejudice and mistreatment.
So far, so good, but children are taught that all bias is unfair, and that fairness is equity, which is possible only after bias has been eradicated. Teachers join in this fight against favoritism and bias—the manual claims that the best way to fight against the evils of racism, sexism, and social-power imbalance is to use what it calls the "anti-bias" approach. In workshops, teachers must find their own biases (in a therapeutic session) and then root them out.
I want to argue something counterintuitive here. Contrary to all this received wisdom, open-mindedness is actually compatible with favoritism and bias. Starting in the 1950s, researchers began running children through a variety of racial-preference play tests and "trait assignment" tasks. The Preschool Racial Attitudes Measure (1975) and the Multiple-Response Racial Attitudes Measure (1988) continued this method, asking kids to assign positive and negative traits to images of black and white children. Researchers wanted to see if kids assign traits, like "nice" or "mean" or "dirty" or "clean," based solely on racial features.
Since some of this trait assignment does correlate with racial differences, it was thought to be evidence for early-childhood racism. Kids seemed to be negative and prejudiced toward "outgroups"—those of different racial or ethnic or cultural background. That view fits with a long-held bit of folk wisdom: People come together against a common enemy or set of strangers. Racial differences seem to create solidarity out of negativity. That view has mixed with developmental views, like Piaget's, and has become part of a story that describes all kids as moving from early-childhood selfishness, to intermediate group concern, to the final stage of principled fairness for all. Each predecessor is considered an impediment to its successor.
However, more-recent research, especially by the psychologists Sheri R. Levy, Melanie Killen, Heidi McGlothlin, and Alexandra Henning, has shown something very interesting, something counter to all this folk wisdom. Yes, "ingroup" bias is very strong—we identify with people who most resemble us—but it doesn't really correspond with negativity toward outgroups in the way we previously thought. The earlier testing (trait-assignment tasks) forced kids into false dichotomies. Given only a narrow set of positive and negative traits and racial subjects to designate, kids automatically preferred their own similar ingroups, but then had no other choice but to assign negative traits to those individuals and groups who were different.
Subtler testing shows that group favoritism does not automatically entail negative judgments or attitudes toward outgroups. Without the forced-dichotomy testing, kids will attribute to outgroups neutral traits and positive traits, not negative traits. Killen, McGlothlin, and Henning articulate the problems inherent in the forced-choice method: "A child who assigns the trait 'nice' to the picture card that looks like the self (ingroup) may do so to associate a positive trait with the self; this decision may not reflect anything about the child's outgroup attitude. Conversely, assigning a negative trait to a picture card reflecting a member of the outgroup may be a result of avoiding associating a negative trait with the ingroup rather than as a reflection of a negative view of the outgroup category."
Love trumps fairness every time. It says: I don't care if other people are more deserving.
These recent findings undermine the old assumption that favoritism automatically entails bigotry toward outgroups. Intergroup relationships and judgments, even among kids, are much more complex than we thought. Kids simultaneously make social evaluations based on at least three criteria: self-interests, group interests, and justice interests. The old folk wisdom that group closeness comes from opposition to others is not borne out by recent data. Nor is the old developmental story that we all start out as egoistic Hobbesians, who slowly learn to care for others. Affective neuroscience research on early-childhood bonding suggests that, as mammals, we probably start out as emotionally glued microcommunities (family and tribe) before we become autonomous ego-driven creatures. Favoritism, not egoism, is probably the primal value system.
In short, favoritism or bias toward your group is not intrinsically racist, sexist, or closed-minded. Privileging your tribe does not render you negative or bigoted toward those outside your tribe. And to top it off, we're now beginning to understand the flexible nature of our ingroup favoritism—it doesn't have to be carved along bloodlines, or race lines, or ethnic lines. Psychological experiments reveal a whole range of criteria for ingroup bias. For example, test subjects have been shown to award higher payoffs to arbitrary ingroups, like people who just happen to share the same birthday as the test subject. And ingroup bias can be demonstrably strong when subjects share allegiance to the same sports teams, and so on.
Young people in our schools are repeatedly exposed to a bogus association between unbiased equality for all and open-mindedness. But even the laudable pantheon of fairness fighters, paraded before elementary students, have their origins in ingroup favoritism. Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony were not fighting for the equality of all people per se, but for the inclusion of their ingroups. It's no disservice to them or denigration of them to point out this basic fact of favoritism. Some serious allegiance to one's tribe is, after all, how anything gets done at the social level—including civil rights.
Many kids and even adults see fairness in punitive terms. Lofty egalitarian philosophy and the utopian pursuit of equality are noble when legislators are framing constitutions, but the rest of us usually cry "unfair" when we feel slighted, snubbed, or envious of others. Feeling injured, as an individual or group, is strong fuel for our obsession with fairness.
Alexis de Tocqueville studied America and pronounced, "Equality is a slogan based on envy. It signifies in the heart of every republican 'Nobody is going to occupy a place higher than I."
What does my neighbor have? He has reputation, and I do not. He has wealth, and I do not. He has interesting friends, he has opportunity, a better wife, better kids, better morals, better fashion sense, better piano skills, a better diploma. Envy knows no bounds and can thrive in the ghetto or the country club.
Theologians and philosophers have labored to unpack the nuances of envy and noticed that we tend to envy those who are closer to our own lifestyle and class. Thomas Aquinas noticed, in his Summa Theologica, that "a man does not strive for mastery in matters where he is very deficient; so that he does not envy one who surpasses him in such matters, unless he surpass him by little, for then it seems to him that this is not beyond him." I, for one, confess that I envy my neighbor's big backyard more than I do the wealth of Bill Gates, whose affluence seems more remote, fantastical, and even preposterous. Aquinas also cites Aristotle, who noticed that the elderly envy the young for their health and beauty, and nearly everyone hates to see another person gain with ease what you yourself acquired through sweat and difficulty. I have been heard to utter "It's not fair," for example, when I contemplate that my neighbor doesn't work any harder than me and yet flourishes in his obscene estate of a backyard—he and his enormous lawn mocking me. OK, let's move on.
Children and parents were taught something very different about envy in the 19th century. Parents taught their children to accommodate negative feelings like envy using stoic resolve. When the educational philosopher Felix Adler analyzed the biblical Cain and Abel parable, in his 1892 The Moral Instruction of Children, he exhorted young people to master and suppress their feelings of envy, or else they would end up like murderous Cain (recall that envy led Cain to kill his brother after God preferentially favored Abel's animal sacrifice). Envy was to be treated with self-discipline. There will always be people better off than you, and the sooner you accept and conquer your envy, the better off you'll be.
The social historian Susan J. Matt argues that all this changed in the 20th century, and by the 1930s a whole new childhood education regarding envy was in full swing. Social workers "praised parents who bought extra gifts for their children. If a son or daughter needed a hat, adults should buy it, but they should also purchase hats for their other offspring, whether or not they needed them. This would prevent children from envying one another."
The phenomenon of sibling rivalry made its way into the textbooks as a potentially damaging pattern of envy—one that is best addressed by giving all the kids an equal fair share of everything. Subduing or restraining one's feelings of deprivation and envy was considered old school, and new parents (living in a more prosperous nation) sought to stave off those feelings in their children by giving them more stuff.
This trend—of assuaging feelings of deprivation by distributing equal goods to children—grew even stronger in the baby-boomer era and beyond. It has also dovetailed nicely with the rise of an American consumer culture that defines the good life in part by material acquisition. "In a consumer society," Ivan Illich says, "there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy." Today's culture tries to spare kids the pains of sibling and peer rivalry, but does so by teaching them to channel their envy into the language and expectation of fairness—and a reallocation of goods that promises to redress their emotional wounds.
If our high-minded notions of retributive justice have roots in the lower emotions of revenge, then why should we be surprised if fairness has roots in envy? I have no illusions and feel entirely comfortable with the idea that fairness has origins in baser emotions like envy. But most egalitarians will find this repugnant, and damaging to their saintly and selfless version of fairness.
The merit-based critique of fairness is well known. Plato spends much of The Republic railing against democracy on the grounds that know-nothing dolts should never have equal political voice with experts (aristoi). Elitism is a dirty word in our culture, but not for the ancients.
American hostility to elitism is especially manifest during election seasons, when politicians work hard to downplay their own intelligence and intellectual accomplishments so they might seem less threatening (less eggheadish) to the public. I am in agreement with many of the merit-based critiques of egalitarian fairness. I don't want my political leaders to be "regular guys." I want them to be elite in knowledge and wisdom. I want them to be exceptional.
Our contemporary hunger for equality can border on the comical. When my son came home from school with a fancy ribbon, I was filled with pride to discover that he had won a footrace. While I was heaping praise on him, he interrupted to correct me. "No, it wasn't just me," he explained. "We all won the race!" He impatiently educated me. He wasn't first or second or third—he couldn't even remember what place he took. Everyone who ran the race was told that they had won and were all given the same ribbon. "Well, you can't all win a race," I explained to him, ever-supportive father that I am. "That doesn't even make sense." He simply held up his purple ribbon and raised his eyebrows at me, as if to say, "You are thus refuted."
I don't want my son and every other kid in his class to be told they'd "won" the footrace at school just because we think their self-esteem can't handle the truth. Equal rewards for unequal achievements foster the dogma of fairness, but they don't improve my son or the other students.
The contrast of our fairness system with merit-based Chinese preschool is astounding. Imagine your 4-year-old preschooler getting up the nerve to stand in front of her class to tell a story. It's a sweet rite of passage that many children enjoy around the world, and it builds self-esteem and confidence. Now imagine that when your preschooler is finished spinning her yarn, the other children tell her that her story was way too boring. One kid points out that he couldn't understand it, another kid says her voice was much too quiet, another says she paused too many times, and another tells her that her story had a terrible ending. In most schools around the world, this scenario would produce a traumatic and tearful episode, but not so in China, where collective criticism is par for the course—even in preschool.
At Daguan Elementary School, in Kunming, China, this daily gantlet is called the "Story Teller King." American teachers who saw this exercise were horrified by it. But it is indicative of Chinese merit-based culture.
Conservatives and libertarians in the United States tend to like this merit-based view of fairness—the spoils should go to the winners! Liberals say "fairness" when they mean that "all things should be equal." On top of this distinction, there are two kinds of equality pursued under the title of egalitarianism. They are very different but frequently mixed together. Equality of opportunity is one form of egalitarianism, and equality of outcomes is another. The latter, equality of outcomes or shares, is often massaged into policies under the aegis of the former.
The confusion can be seen in the school footrace I've mentioned. Trying to establish the equal opportunity of all kids for athletic activity, schools have mistakenly created an equal-outcomes policy in which all kids are given ribbons for "winning" the race. In this case, the confusion is relatively harmless and the stakes are low. But as children are inculcated with ideas and practices of fairness, these confusions stand as harbingers of things to come.
Instead of trying to harmonize a discordance by transforming favoritism and meritocracy into fairness, we might try a more honest synthesis. A better way to integrate fairness and favoritism for kids is to show how opportunity and outcome are part of a process. Everyone should have equal opportunity to become your friend, but not everyone can be your friend (not everyone can end up as your friend). Anyone should be a candidate for friend status, but few will be admitted to the elite club. Why few? Because favorites (friends) can be created only by spending time together, sharing experiences, and immersing themselves in each other's lives—and time, sadly, is a finite resource.
Treating opportunity and outcome as a process also thwarts the unfounded equation of preference and prejudice. Just because you prefer your favorites does not make you prejudiced. In the case of friendships, for example, kids should be encouraged to fish their friendships from the widest and most diverse pond available (using colorblind, gender-blind, and class-blind criteria), but then the resulting favorites will be a much smaller pool. Being discriminatory in your friendships is prejudiced only if you've prejudged candidates (pre-judicare). Judging after experience (post-judice) is justified preference, not prejudice.
We now begin to appreciate how favoritism flies in the face of both conservative merit-based fairness and liberal equality. In the same way that egalitarianism is no friend of meritocracy, neither is favoritism. Both favoritism and meritocracy are hierarchical and share an antagonism toward fairness, but in every other sense they are strange bedfellows and antagonize each other, too.
My favorites are not the best or most accomplished at this or that. They are not virtuoso human beings. It's my sheer affection for them, my ability to relate to them, and my history with them, that raise their status above other people. Love trumps fairness every time. It says: I don't care if other people are more deserving than you, you're mine and that's why I give you more than anyone else. Ethical philosophies of every stripe—egalitarian, utilitarian, Rawlsian, cosmopolitan—have tried to level people with a grid of uniform impartiality, but our favorites cannot be encapsulated in the grid. They loom too large in our moral geography.
The little prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic feels heartbroken when he realizes that his beloved rose is just a common flower—intrinsically equal with all other roses. But then he comes to understand that she is special because he loves her and "because she is my rose." The wise fox enlightens the little prince: "It is the time you have spent on your rose that makes your rose so important." Favoritism and fairness are deeply irreconcilable, and until we figure out how to square that circle, I'm sticking with my favorites.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy and a fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. This essay is adapted from his new book, Against Fairness, published this month by the University of Chicago Press.