Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Against Fairness?

I have often talked about fairness and impartiality on this blog, such as here and here. This philosopher, Stephen T. Asma, boldly argues we overestimate fairness in a new book, and writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Favortism is not the same as prejudice, he says.

I want to argue something counterintuitive here. Contrary to all this received wisdom, open-mindedness is actually compatible with favoritism and bias. ...

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. ..

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. [..]

Young people in our schools are repeatedly exposed to a bogus association between unbiased equality for all and open-mindedness.

He argues you can favor your own without being inequitable or biased against others.

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.

So Asma here is arguing here that very basic human motivations, like treating your family or close friends as more deserving, still has some legitimacy. On one level, it is remarkable that one has to argue for it. It is hardly counterintuitive. We have let our ethical universalism get quite distant from common sense.

It is also very striking just how strong the effort to teach against "bias" has become, even in preschool. It seems the education establishment cares about little else.

It is fascinating - and beautifully observed - when he how he talks about the default instinct of kids to argue for what they want, selfishly, in terms of appeals to fairness. Adults are often no different. Invocations of fairness are often used as self-interested weapons.

What happens, as Asma notes, is that many of the people held up as heroes of impartiality, such as Susan B. Anthony or Rosa Parks, have actually been fighting for inclusion or the interests of their own in-group, not general impartiality. It may be justified, but it is rarely impartial. (And affirmative action is of course deliberately about favoring some groups, rather than impartiality. The last thing many on the left want is race-blindness.)

Many of the great achievements of the last few hundred years, such as reducing the prevalence of nepotism, rely on impersonal kinds of impartiality. Modern bureaucracy in essence relies on impartiality. But impartiality is not and cannot be the whole of morality, as I've argued before. An overemphasis on impartiality and neutrality causes much of the rest of our ethical instincts to shrivel up.

As I say, you may need a referee to play a game. But the game is not all just about the referee. You have to have some goals as well.


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