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Is it fair?

Fair and unfair, just and unjust, deserving and undeserving?

What standards or methods can we use to determine and reach a consensus on whether a specific action or lack of action is justifiable?

Irrespective of the negative or positive associations attached to terms such as "fair" and "unfair," along with their synonyms like "right" and "wrong" (given their membership in the HOGAB), I propose the existence of objective criteria that can provide a foundation for defining the concepts of fairness and unfairness.

The issue at hand involves using the term "fair" to describe six distinctions that frequently often contradictory

  1. Fair is when two exchanging parties both assess they're both happy and better off with an exchange.

    1. The exchange of an apple for some money.

    2. I spend time with you and you spend time with me and we're both happy in our choice to spend time together.

    3. You have not offered me enough money for my services so it's fair that I reject your offer.

  2. Fair is when you do what you said you previously agreed to do​.

    1. It's fair if he returns my loan by today because he agreed that he would.​

    2. You swore that you would never lie to me so it's not fair to me that you just lied.

    3. In the contract you signed you agreed to keep this information confidential: it's only fair that you abide by this restriction.

  3. Fair is when two or more people are given the same values or options for value or to have the same costs.

    1. Equal pay for equal work.

    2. All citizens should be provided basic health care.

    3. Everybody should be charged the same amount for the same service or product.

  4. Fair is when someone contributes to others according to their ability.

    1. John is the strongest among us so he should carry the heaviest load.

    2. Jill has the least money of any of us here so doesn't need to chip in anything.

  5. Fair is assessed according to someone's need relative to others.

    1. Your brother always seems to need more support than you do so we won't give you as much to you as we give him.

    2. People who've been discriminated against need our help more than those who haven't been.

  6. Fair is assessed according to some law, rule, regulation, policy, or guideline.

    1. The policeman didn't issue the Miranda warning so it's fair that what the suspect said to the policeman cannot be used at the trial.

    2. The immigrant crossed the border without going through the immigration procedures so it's fair that they should be deported.

    3. The child did not come to the dinner table on time so it's fair that they don't get anything to eat until breakfast according to the household rules set by the parents.

    4. You did not provide your full middle name on the application form so it's fair that we are going to request that you do everything over again.

The house of Babel 

Not even considering the fact that almost all of us are living in the House of Good and Bad along with being handicapped by the confirmation bias, severely limiting our ability to assess the different aspects of reality in various situations, it's no wonder that friends, lovers, siblings, parents, children, communities, organizations, affiliations, and governments are divided on what is fair and unfair. Nobody has clearly defined their terms (the use of the word fair and its close synonyms). We all end up being able to relate to Robert McCloskey when he said, "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

What few of us realize, however, is that none of us are clearly defining the term "fair," assuming that the person or people we're speaking to or with must have the same idea of fairness that we do.


Yes, we would have a new problem if each of us clearly defined the criteria by which we assess what is fair or unfair, to the extent that we may even know that ourselves, but at least then we might have a viable, non-judgmental path forward in finding a common, sustainable ground where we could assess how to make choices based upon the ideas of what is fair and unfair.

A more fundamental question

We could begin to ask a more fundamental question, "What conditions or results in the world, that there is a chance of us all agreeing upon, are we trying to support or create by guiding our actions by the distinction of fairness and unfairness, good and bad, right and wrong, should and shouldn't?

Fundamentally, I've found it's fairly (LOL) easy for people to agree on what the benefits and costs, short-term and long-term, are for human beings. Whenever I have asked a client or a friend, "What were the benefits (including possibilities) or the intended benefits of that choice or behavior?" we could always find some evidence of one or more benefits they were trying to get for themselves or another. We could also identify costs (including risks) that were or could be incurred from that choice or behavior. 

Once identified, even others joining the discussion could agree that certain results or intentions are likely to have certain costs and benefits, risks and possibilities, both short-term and long-term for the person involved. Those assessments are grounded in reality. 


In contrast, if I had asked my client, "Was that choice or behavior fair or unfair to you or to them?" it would be likely that I and others would disagree with their answer, given the fuzzy and ofttimes contradictory meanings that many of use to decide what is fair and unfair. The idea of fairness, with its various possible meanings as used even within ourselves and especially when used with others, cannot often be objectively agreed upon.

The foundation of ethics

At base, all benefits for a particular individual are a form of happiness. And the costs are anything that detract from their happiness, both short-term and long-term. Moreover, there are risks and possibilities. Risks are the chance that something that is considered a benefit will not happen. Possibilities are the chance that something that is considered a benefit will happen. If our ideas of fair and unfair, good and bad, right and wrong are to serve our life best, they must be grounded in these fundamental facts.

Therefore, I suggest that our idea of fairness be grounded in taking courses of action that are likely to increase the benefits and reduce the costs, increase the possibilities and reduce the risks, both short-term and long-term for the person or people, as they interact with each other, that we are considering enrolling into or applying the idea of fairness to.

Let's examine the most important life context (our interactions with others, most often one-to-one) with this idea of fairness in mind

Given this objective, evidenced-based criteria for assessing what might be fair or not, let's develop the guidelines that are specific enough to be useful in navigating the everyday choices that we make in relationship with others.

In general, each person (leaving aside the issue of young children and those with severely diminished mental capacity) is in the best position (compared to anyone else) to assess what exchanges with others could provide the most benefits and possibilities and the least costs and risks, short-term and long-term, in caring for themselves. Include with this, the fact that it's everybody's #1 job to take care of themselves.


When deliberating on whether to initiate a request, respond with "yes," or opt for "no" in response to a suggested exchange with another—who is hopefully engaged in the same decision-making process—fairness emerges in the outcome (an exchange occurring or not). 


In comparison, the other three options that can result from "exchanges" are more likely will either reduce the average benefits between the two or even be costly for them both.

The four scenarios are:

  1. Win-Win (I win and you win) = fair

  2. Win-Lose (I win and you lose) = unfair

  3. Lose-Win (I lose and you win) = unfair

  4. Lose-Lose (I lose and you lose) = unfair

Any scenario except the first one is likely to create more costs than benefits for the two parties, especially when considering long-term as well as short-term.

Certainly, even when both parties initially think they will be better off with an exchange, either one could be mistaken or the conditions could change over time such that a continued exchange would not be mutually beneficial.

The principle of fairness is well recognized in the world of exchanging products and services

This is very obvious when exchanging products or services for money. The person who incurs the cost and risks of giving up money in exchange for a product or service does so only when they think having the product or service (in comparison with other exchange options available) will serve them better than keeping the money or spending the money another way.


In the same way, the person who incurs the costs and risks associated with giving up the product or providing the service does so only when they think that having the money and what they could do with it (in comparison with other exchange options for obtaining money) will serve them better than not giving up the product or providing the service for the amount of money that the other person is willing to pay for that product or service. 

In general, we would consider it to be unfair if one (or both) sides were forced (or tricked) or even guilted into entering a exchange or not entering into an exchange when they did not make the assessment, all things considered, that they were better off making the exchange or not.

Applying the win-win principle of fairness in the world of personal relationships

Also, in package-deal exchanges as simple as enjoying spending time with someone over a meal or as complicated as getting and staying married, it behooves each party to consider both short-term and long-term costs, risks, benefits, and possibilities as they regularly assess and re-assess whether they're getting a good deal or not in order ensure a continuing fair exchange. 

Ultimately, it's each person's responsibility to determine what is fair/acceptable for them in deciding whether to enter into an exchange or to continue with an exchange as is or not.

Ideas of fairness that aren't grounded in the idea of increasing mutual benefits and reducing mutual costs will result in more unhappiness and more costs, certainly for one party and almost always for both, especially when including the long-term

In 1979 my mother, after being married to a man she didn't love and didn't respect for 36 years, decided to get divorced. When she told her mother about her decision, my grandmother said, "Dorothy, you can't leave him. He needs you." My grandmother, and even my mother, were culturalized with the idea that it would be unfair for someone to deny a person in need (my father was bipolar). The idea of it being unfair to leave him was reinforced by the fact that he was the man she had married and had promised to be with "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part" and by the fact that my mother was stronger than my father so that her ability to take care of him made it unfair for her not to.

As a result of what my grandmother said and my mother's fear of her mother's disapproval (since she couldn't argue with the idea of fairness that her grandmother expressed), she stayed with my father for another five miserable years.

The horror of the Old Ethics of Sacrifice


The only way she was able to allow herself to finally leave him (since she was still culturalized by the sacrificial ideas of fairness) was that she was at the absolute end of her ability to be with him and take care of him and she was able to focus on all the "bad" things (which were "unfair") that my father had done (that my mother had let him do by not previously taking care of herself because she was trying to be the "good wife"), allowed her to justify leaving him. His "unfairness," combined with her lack of ability to keep going, was able to trump, in her mind, her promise of "in sickness and in health" and the fact that "he needed her."

Doesn't "need" count for anything?

Aside from the fact that what constitutes a "need" and assessing when one person's "need" is greater than another's in trying to determine what is fair according to "need" being quite problematic, I am not implying that need is not an important consideration in deciding if something is fair for us in our interactions with another.

In fact, need is a factor in all win-win exchanges. When I give money to a vendor for an apple, they need the money and I need the apple. 

What is not so obvious for many of us is the needs that are being satisfied for the "giver" in situations where we only notice the need of the person who seems to be the "taker." Consider these examples of people in need.

  • A tourist needs directions to an address.

  • A driver needs some help because their car broke down.

  • A beggar needs some money to eat.

  • A mother in Yemen needs some medical help for herself and her child.

  • A wife is ailing and needs her husband for assistance on a daily basis.

The hidden needs that a "giver" could satisfy in each of the above examples, making it a win-win

In each of these cases, it is quite common for the "giver" who decides to satisfy any of the needs mentioned above to be a partner in a win-win exchange because they also have needs that are being satisfied, even though we are often not consciously aware of those needs...even in ourselves when we are the "giver."

For example, the person who gives directions to the tourist feels a sense of power. Getting a feeling of our power and a sense that we are valued by others are basic human needs. The local knows something the tourist doesn't and they enjoy being appreciated for their willingness to help the tourist out and to be acknowledged for their ability to do so.


As with the first example, these same needs could be satisfied for the "giver" in the other four scenarios above.

The last scenario, in which a husband decides to be the "giver" with his wife, involves the possibility of some other needs being satisfied for him. These occur when we have developed a relationship of caring with another. To the extent that we feel an empathetic happiness when we have something to do with another person being more happy or being taken care of, then we are more happy by being the "giver." Moreover, given that a desire for reciprocation is built into our genes (if you give me something, then I want to give you something back), this may be another need that is being satisfied for the husband because of what he feels he has received from his wife and he therefore has a natural desire to reciprocate.

Finally, since we live in cultures that tend to honor and applaud the obvious "giver," we may be happy to "give" just so we "look good." 

The fly in the ointment

This last reason can be the fly in the ointment if you cannot consider it objectively, which few of us can. Most of us are so attached to looking good and not looking bad that it often trumps all the costs on the other side. We sacrifice ourselves and our aliveness out of our attachment to "looking good," which means that we will do almost anything to avoid the possibility of looking selfish or insensitive to the needs and desires of others. That is what kept my mother, an otherwise happy and kind woman, in a loveless marriage for 41 years.

The co-conspirators

It's not just the words fair and unfair. The same ambiguity affects the supporting staff of the HOGAG. Here are a few of the leaders.

  • Just and unjust

  • Deserving and undeserving

  • Giver and taker

  • Right and wrong

  • Honorable and dishonorable

  • Unselfish and selfish

  • Should and shouldn't

Should we coin a new word?

New and helpful words get coined all the time. An example is the word "selfie." Another example is the word "microaggression."

I have coined a number of words (even if it just involved capitalizing a regular word). Here are most of them:

At this time, I am not proposing that we coin a new word to denote a measurable, non-self-contradictory distinction to mean what I have proposed as a clear non-judgmental definition of the word fair.

The meaning of common terms can adjust by their usage over time. Consider, for example, the word "nice."

In the past, "nice" had a variety of meanings that included being precise, delicate, or particular. It could also mean foolish or simple. Over time, the word's connotations shifted, and it came to signify something pleasant, agreeable, or kind. In contemporary usage, "nice" is commonly used to describe something positive or likable, but its previous nuances have largely faded away. This transformation in meaning showcases how words can evolve and take on new associations over the course of history.

A new meaning, a new life...

Let's use the word fair (and its ilk) in this new way to denote choices and exchanges between peoples where all sides are assessing themselves a winner in the exchange. If we do this, explaining it to others, when necessary, we'll recommission the word "fair" so that it changes from its current-day effect of often causing damage to ourselves and our relationships to a one where, with its new empowered and precise meaning, we can consistently empower our life as well as our relationship with others, creating a world of win-win relationships where everyone is taking care of themselves in the process. 

To guide our life inside of this distinction requires choosing courage since sometimes we'll need to risk "looking bad" in order to ensure that we're taking 100% responsibility in fulfilling our #1 job in life (taking care of ourselves).

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