“Life isn’t fair.”

I don’t know the first time I ever heard that but I was young.

If I asked you, “is life fair?” you’d probably answer “Of course not.”

And yet, most of us believe in the fairness of life to some degree or other, even if we would never admit it.

We believe in Karma, or we believe in meritocracy, or we believe in justice or we believe in the Invisible Hand, or we believe in (insert your mystical force here). And then many of us may reject justice here and now but believe that some kind of cosmic force will pay us back once we are dead.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself that you don’t believe any of this stuff, that you know life is unfair.

Are you sure you don’t believe life is fair?


Life is Unfair

Of course life is unfair. We see examples of unfairness every day, multiple times a day. No matter what our conception of fairness.

But how do I actually know life is unfair?

Obviously your life experience shows you life isn’t fair. If you feel differently, please do comment because I have yet to meet a single person who actually feels that way.

But a deeper reason we know life is unfair is that fairness is an idea dreamed up by humans. Before human beings, there could be no fairness because there were no humans to invent it. (This isn’t true if an unknown alien species came up with a concept like fairness, of course. But that’s irrelevant to us because we have not met said alien species.)

We know fairness is a human construct because humans can’t even agree about what fairness means. We can’t agree what justice means. We can’t agree whether or not they’re synonymous. Different languages have different words that are roughly synonymous and some which are not. When I use the English word fairness, it may not convey the same meaning to a French-speaker as the French word justice, for example.

Multiple different definitions and connotations of words roughly equating to “fairness” indicates the evolution of the concept, along with all other human concepts. It did not come from the ether, we made it up.

And contrary to the beliefs of someone like CS Lewis, the fact that many or most cultures have a concept of fairness does not in fact mean they all got it from the ether. Quite the opposite: it suggests the concept of some kind of fairness evolves from human cooperation, just like all our other values.

The universe and our planet predate fairness by billions of years. They cannot be fair or unfair. They just are. And no mumbojumbo – spiritual, moral, or economic – will ever change that fact.


Morality Isn’t Exactly Universal

Let’s say you think you have the world pretty well figured out.

Let’s say you have an ethical framework which governs your actions.

Let’s say you think your behaviour is good enough to get you some final reward. Maybe you call it Heaven, maybe you call it something else, but you are worthy.

Regardless, it’s gotten you this far.

How did you get to this good place?

Was it your parents? Was it your school? Was it a neighbour or family member? Was it life experience?

What was it? How did you get here?

Say it out loud.

And do you think you’re a good person? If you believe in Heaven, are you going there?

Say it out loud.

Now let’s talk about Umar Ismailov.

Umar Ismailov is Kyrgyz. He lives in Osh.

What does Umar know about your ethics?

Maybe there’s some overlap between what you and he believe. There might be a lot.

But it’s not the same, you won’t agree on many things.

And, moreover, you probably can’t guess about what you would disagree about more than a few broad things. Same with Umar, he probably can’t guess what you think.

What chance does Umar have to get into your Heaven?

Honestly, what chance does he have?

And how exactly is that fair?

Well, it’s not fair.

The good news for Umar in this case is that Heaven does not exist.

But even if we replace “Heaven” with any other “cosmic reward” we can imagine, the argument still holds: the exact set of ethics or morals you think is necessary to get you some kind of eternal reward is different from every other person’s. (The reason there are so many religions, and so many sects within religions, and disagreements within sects is that no one person entirely agrees with no other person about ethics.)

If there is some universal justice which rewards good behaviour, most of the people who have ever lived have violated those rules, not due to purposeful choice but because they didn’t know what those rules are. So even if there is some divine plan based on human behaviour, it is horribly unfair to nearly everyone. (That or the standards for admittance are extraordinarily low.)

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