Thursday, February 9, 2012

Life isn't fair....

at least that's what I've been told countless times. And I've probably passed on the same notion to others. I vividly remember being upset and crying numerous times when I was a child over some situation or another where I was devastated by the "unfairness" of something. Often it was a situation that didn't resolve itself in my favor or to my satisfaction, but not always.

Looking at some of what is written about the meaning of the word fair reveals:
fairness - n(oun).
Synonyms: fair(1), just(1), equitable, impartial, unprejudiced, unbiased, objective, dispassionate
These adjectives mean free from favoritism, self-interest, or preference in judgment. Fair is the most general: a fair referee; a fair deal.
Just stresses conformity with what is legally or ethically right or proper...
Looking back at the child I once was I can see that what I was likely protesting and what I was many times wounded by was the sense that whatever was happening was not equitable or wasn't a fair deal. Not that I thought that way or in those terms then, no...I felt pain and a sense of wrongness or being wronged and my way of expressing that hurtful feeling was with the phrase "no fair". I would suspect that anyone who had playmates has dealt with situations where "no fair" was invoked and either some adjustment was made or everyone went away feeling wronged or angry...or some left that way and others left flushed with the pleasure of winning. Shame on me for those times where I benefited from some unfairness.

Charles Dickens gives voice to this via his character Pip in Great Expectations:
"In the little world in which children have their existence there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice." (p. 63 from the Penguin edition)
But, over time and with many repeats of "life's not fair" I submerged (many) of my notions of fair/unfair. Not all of them though, thankfully.

I can still remember seeing scenes on television of the furor and turmoil occurring in Little Rock, Arkansas when a number of African American school children started attending classes at a previously all white school. I began questioning my parents about the whats and whys of what was going on there and for the first time started to apprehend that massive and monstrous obvious 'unfairnesses' went on and on and often never ever changed.

Moreover, when anyone pointed out one of those unfairnesses and tried to change them, not only did denial of those unfairnesses happen...many supported the unfair situation and resisted....sometimes with serious and extreme violence...attempts to change them. We "Americans" murdered M. L. King because of his objections to unfairness. We "Americans" virtually wiped out the original human inhabitants of the Western hemisphere with only minimal or no references to any notions of fairness...simply because it benefited us. Throughout history objecting to unfairness or being in the path of those bent on benefiting themselves with no thought of fairness has been a risky and often dangerous proposition.

That's sort of interesting in a macabre and scary way when you think about it. One would naturally think that being unfair would be dangerous and/or unpopular, instead being the victim of or objecting to unfairness appears to be the risky and/or unpopular thing.

Thomas Paine wrote something interesting concerning this:
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom."
It may be partially that our sense of injustice and unfairness is sharper and more sensitive when we're children because we don't have a long history of thinking about much of anything, much less whether something is fair or unfair, wrong or right. It's all new to us, and clear and fresh. It is only over the trail of living that we learn to develop long habits of "not thinking a thing wrong" or unfair even when it is then that we become susceptible to the illusion of the "superficial appearance of being right" or fair.

Well, it is true, in fact that "life" many times isn't fair. Awful things happen to innocent beings...again and again and again. Floods, storms, freezes, heat-waves, accidents, etc....notice however that these "unfairnesses" are the result of the behavior of non-living (or at least non sentient inso far as I can tell) systems or forces. Does the unfairness of these phenomena then give living beings license to behave unfairly? Do these elemental unfairnesses make unfair behavior by living beings unremarkable or acceptable? Do they remove fairness from consideration except as some sort of fantasy or dream? I think not.

Notice that, insofar as I know, earthquakes don't benefit from their destruction, nor do tornadoes or floods. They just are...with no thought of winning or achieving anything. They aren't motivated by greed or lust or ambition or hunger or fear or acquisition. They occur and then recede, they don't look around to see their results and repeat themselves if they aren't satisfied. "They" aren't a they in the sense of an agent.

But sentient beings are agents. We do things because of greed or lust or ambition or fear. We can also refrain from doing things because of these motives. We have a sense of fairness, of justice. We can behave in accordance with a sense of fairness....or not.

The Veil of Ignorance  (associated with the 'original position') is one of the more interesting ideas I've ever encountered regarding fairness or justice. It serves to express in rather precise terms the notion of behaving toward others like you would want to be treated. The Wikipedia entry rather precisely describes this:
It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g. slavery) based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him/her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions and resources in their society. As Rawls put it, " one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like."[5] The idea then, is to render moot those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.
For example, in the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of the worst off members.
While the Veil of Ignorance proposition is stated in terms applicable to human animals and their societies, there is little effort involved in expanding the question to all sentient beings, to the community of life itself.

In other words, in any particular situation, how would you want sentient beings to behave toward one another if you chose how they were to behave....but you had to choose these ways of behaving without knowing your own particular species membership.

For instance, would you see the killing and eating of sentient beings (when it is not necessary for survival) as fair or just or moral might be one of those killed and eaten?

Would you see the imprisoning and enslaving and exploiting of sentient beings as fair or just or moral...if you might be one of the sentient beings exploited?

Would you see the stealing of babies from their mothers and the selling of that mothers milk for profit if you might be one of the mothers or babies involved?

I think (hope) you get the point.

Ethical veganism isn't about "loving" animals. It is about fairness and justice for all animals...including the nonhuman and the human animals. It is an issue of morality...of what is right, of what is fair, of what is just. It is an issue of living as fairly and justly as we can.

We have for too long, in the words of Thomas Paine, been " not thinking a thing wrong"...that  "thing" being the exploiting, abusing, enslaving and killing sentient beings. a result of that "not thinking a thing wrong" we have lazily fallen into superficially thinking it to be right or acceptable. Well it isn't.

We each can behave fairly or unfairly, justly or unjustly....we each can contribute to fairness in the world or to unfairness. We each can increase justice on our planet or we can behave unjustly. We can give what we ask for ourselves or we can ask for that which we are not willing to offer to others.

In large part, these sorts of doings or not-doings define who we are. We all have to decide and our decision is reflected in our behaviors....ethical veganism isn't a is a way of living that contributes to fairness and life and peace and joy and happiness. Living any other way increases unnecessary misery, suffering, pain and death. Living any other way is truly...."no fair".

My thanks to Bea Elliott who wrote about justice on her blog Provoked around the same time I was turning over some thoughts about that topic. Her writing is an inspiration and she is a shining example of a human animal who increases the fairness and justice in this battered old world.


Anonymous said...

Awesome post! And, yes, Bea Elliot is amazing! Justice for the living.

joan.kyler said...

GREAT blog post! Your reasoning is always clear and focused. Thank you for the Thomas Paine quote; it's going into my common book because it says so well what I have been trying to. 'Do Unto Others', all others, is the easiest way to live a compassionate life.

Bea Elliott said...

Oh gosh! If I had anything in the slightest measure to contribute to such an amazing post as this... I'm floored!

I kept reading each paragraph - crying "Yes! Yes! Yes" - And then there's a mention of me... I know my limitations - I could never have put these ideas into such a coherent body. But I'm honored I helped, if you say I have...

I've been trying for the longest time too to figure out the right response when I hear "life's not fair". This is the reasoning I was searching for!

You have even clarified why kids see things as "not-fair". It was so obvious - Yet I missed it! They haven't had time to "normalize" injustice. It's not that we don't continue to know something's wrong... We just learn how to dismiss our own failings as "life". A forever license to do the worst things without responsibility! Yikes!

The Veil of Ignorance... Deciding on principles both objectively and subjectively - Fascinating! It sort of goes back to your 11/26/11 post about Helmut Kaplan who recommended that we apply the Golden Rule beyond how we'd like to be treated - But to how others would want to be treated. Total sense! The Theory of Everything fits right in here - Doesn't it?

Thank you so much for putting this together. It really is a critical piece in understanding our moral deviations. I think I have even more "ammo" now - And it sure feels good!

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting DEM. I agree, Bea is a treasure.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Joan. The Paine quote is a good one isn't it?

It all actually is fairly simple, what makes it so confusing is pretending all living beings shouldn't be treated fairly....followed by a litany of lies and lunacies. All we gotta do is act decently toward others. Too tough for us, I guess.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Bea.

A forever license for no responsibility...excellent line.

I'm glad the post is useful for you, I'm not totally satisfied with it and expect to maybe develop it a bit more but that's much of what I've come up with so far.

In the end it isn't complicated at all...what is so bumfuzzling is the way we confuse and bamboozle ourselves. Silly and sad.

CQ said...

Wow, if you're not fully satisfied with this post, then I am preparing to have BOTH socks blown off by the next one. Actually, they have already been blown off by this one!

I, too, love the Paine quote (and the Dickens' quote); I've already copy/pasted them elsewhere, for future ammo.

I, too, nodded my head vigorously throughout this post.

I thought a veil of ignorance was what it sounds like, simply a covering that hides the truth. I had no idea it was a theory, and a fascinating one at that. It makes perfect sense to add the concept of a species veil.

Wouldn't that make an incredible parlor game -- you know, the one where you have someone's name pinned to your back and you have to guess who you are, based on the hints fellow guests give you.

If the rules were that only one person at a time had a tag, and all the "hinters" had to describe your good qualities and your station in life WITHOUT giving away your species, would you figure out that you were a beautiful being who happened to be an enslaved, confined pig?

OK, time to send this post off to a bunch of folks who will be barefooted as I am by the time they're done reading it.

Oh, first, I have to say that everything you say about children recognizing unfairness makes total sense, as does this famous line from Tolstoy that I should've memorized by now, given the numer of times I've quoted it: "Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised."

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting CQ. Partially what I meant by being not fully satisfied is that I have a nagging notion that this issue of fairness (justice) is a core component of living in general that hasn't been accorded nearly the importance it deserves. Much remains to be done....not that I know quite what but much remains...I'm pretty sure.

The game thingee sounds interesting, maybe that could be developed into a general game called Fairness or something.

Tolstoy and Dickens both recognized that while children can be ignorant in many others their wisdom often excels.