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20140126 Against Fairness



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The main idea of this book is valid, but it runs against great many things that we all get indoctrinated with from early childhood. It is not just restates such platitudes as that life is not fair, but it also states that it makes a lot of sense and that we wood be worse off if somehow it would be otherwise.

One of the most interesting points is that big and famous “humanists” like Gandhi are really inhumane because they often put some ideal of abstract humanism higher then real and concrete human beings they are dealing with. So somehow it becomes not only acceptable to hurt real humans in the name of great idea, but even necessary and justifiable to do so.

Luckily unfairness is so deep seated in us that it is more often then not overcomes abstract indoctrination and makes us to be unfair often without even recognizing it.

Here are some points made in this book:

Biological favoritism – the idea that some human being could be equally impartial to their own children and to children of strangers contradicts our real life experience, even if it is supported by many philosophers and ethicists. The book provides a nice tour on biological mechanics of why it is so. Obviously process of evolution would probably filter out individuals who have problem prioritizing limited resources they have by allocating these resources randomly instead based on genetic closeness.

Uniqueness of Western culture, which somehow overcame, at least to some extent, this biological favoritism and puts high value on equality before the low and kindness to strangers. Interesting point is made on artistic representation of reality. In Western culture at some point the correct perspective started to be used making various figures proportional so king would not be bigger in size then regular person. It seems to be correlated with development of capitalism and appearance of wealthy commoners.

After spending a bulk of book on interplay between western egalitarian culture, author goes through review of Chinese, Indian, and other non-western cultures.

The remaining part is most interesting by attempt to accommodate two contradictory forces: fairness with more good for most people and favoritism with helping keen first. The final result presented by thought experiment of utilitarian philosopher William Godwin when one have a choice of saving chambermaid who happens to be his mother and archbishop. Godwin insists that to save archbishop is more important because of his value for humanity. Stephen Asma insists on saving his mother. I completely agree with him and I even think that it is much more humane and even more reasonable from utilitarian point of few because utility of once mother is known to this person, while utility of archbishops for anybody is always questionable.

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