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The War on Fairness

by M. G. PIETY

It’s rare when a person does something that is a once so idiotic and so heinous that it brings discredit upon his entire profession. I fear philosopher Stephen T. Asma has done this, however, with his new book from the University of Chicago Press. I’ve bragged for years to friends and relatives that the philosophy curriculum at the graduate level is so rigorous that it weeds out the kinds of morons who all to often are able to make it through other Ph.D. programs. Not everyone with a Ph.D. in philosophy is a transcendent genius, I’ve conceded, but there’s a basement level of analytical acuity below which philosophers simply do not go.

I stand corrected! Stephen T. Asma’s article, “In Defense of Favoritism,” excerpted from his book Against Fairness (I’m not making this up, I swear) is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life. I endeavor, as a rule, not to read crap, but I was intrigued when I saw the title of Asma’s article in the headlines I receive every day from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Clever hook, I though! It seemed obvious to me that few people would undertake a genuine defense of favoritism and that the Chronicle would certainly never publish such a thing, so I was curious to find out what the article was actually about.

Well, it’s just what it says it is–it’s a defense, or an attempt at a defense anyway, of favoritism. I say “an attempt” at a defense because favoritism is considered by most people to indefensible, and with good reason.  “Favoritism,” as distinguished from the universally human phenomenon of having favorites, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “[a] disposition to show, or the practice of showing, favour or partiality to an individual or class, to the neglect of others having equal or superior claims; undue preference.” It’s the qualification of the preference as “undue” that’s important here.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your niece or nephew, for example, to get that new tenure-track position in your department, but there’s a whole lot wrong with giving it to them, or giving them preferential treatment in discussions of who should get it, simply because they are your niece or nephew. Ditto for your favorite grad student. To want someone you care about to succeed because you care about them is perfectly natural. To ENSURE that they succeed over other, and possibly better qualified, people simply because you care about them is wrong. That’s what favoritism is though.

I thought at first that Asma might simply be confused about the meaning of “favoritism,” that what he was actually trying to do was to defend the view that there’s nothing wrong with having favorites, that what philosophers refer to as “preferential affection” is simply part of human nature and not something anyone should ever feel guilty about. The further I got into the article, however, the clearer it became that Asma was indeed trying to defend undue preference.

The piece, as Kierkegaard would say, is something both to laugh at and to weep over in that it’s such an inept piece of argumentation that it’s hilarious while at the same time being profoundly morally offensive. That Asma’s opening is, as one reader points out in the comments following the article, “irrelevant to his point” is the least of his crimes against sound reasoning.

“Fairness,” asserts Asma, “is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice,” thus positioning himself as a sort of imbecilic David over and against the Goliath of the philosopher John Rawls whose theory of justice as fairness is much admired by philosophers. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with taking aim at intellectual giants. It helps, however, when one does this, to have a good argument.

But Asma does not have a good argument. It’s impossible to give a developmental account of Asma’s argument because there’s little that resembles a structure to it. Instead of starting with premises that he carefully arranges to lead the reader from assumptions he already holds to a conclusion the inevitability of which he is finally compelled, if not actually to accept, then at least to concede as probable, Asma presents a mishmash of irrelevant, incoherent, and equivocal non sequiturs that litter the page like toys strewn about a room by an impatient child rooting frantically through his things for the one cherished toy he cannot find. And what is Asma’s cherished toy? Why it’s favoritism! Asma is determined to prove that favoritism is, in his own words, “not a bad thing.”

The upshot of Asma’s rambling argument is that the tendency toward favoritism is part of human nature. This is regrettably true. It makes us feel good when we promote the interests of those we love. Just because something makes us feel good though, doesn’t mean that it is ethical. The conflation of these two things is known in philosophy as “the naturalistic fallacy.” Asma, ought to know this because Asma is a philosopher. How he can make such a fundamental mistake is mystifying.

The article begins with Asma recounting a scene with his son who is complaining because Asma will not allow him to play a game that involves the killing of zombies because he, Asma, feels his son is too young for that sort of game. “That’s sooo not fair!” his son protests. Instead, however, of using this occasion as the inspiration to write a children’s book that will help them to better understand the meaning of the word “fair,” Asma takes his toddler’s grasp of the term, equates it erroneously with “egalitarianism” and decides to write a philosophical treatise (for adults) discrediting them both.

Asma then turns to an examination of what he asserts is the virtue of generosity. What he actually describes, however, is not what most philosophers would identify as a virtue which, according to Aristotle, for one, requires cultivation, but a natural inclination, found in varying degrees in various individuals, to share what one has with one’s friends–and only, he is careful to explain, with one’s friends. The child in his example gives all her candy to a few friends over the protestations of classmates to whom she has a less passionate emotional attachment. “But the quality of her generosity,” asserts Asma, “is not compromised by the fact that she gave it all to her five friends.” This flagrantly begs the question, however, because there is a sizeable contingent of humanity that would contest such a definition of “generosity.” Sure, if you define sharing with only your friends as “virtuous,” then you won’t have a hard time defending favoritism because sharing with only your friends is the same thing as favoritism and far from seeing it as a virtue, most of humanity would see it as downright nasty.

And that isn’t the only problem with conflating inclinations and virtues. How about sharing with your friend when you have good reason to believe that that friend is going to use what you’ve shared with him to further some nefarious purpose? Is that virtuous? Plato talks about that problem in the Republic. Is it possible that Asma, a philosopher, hasn’t read the Republic?

My heart sort of goes out to Asma at that point though because he seems to be contrasting the child who shares with only her friends with a child who refuses to share any of his candy with anyone–ever and that’s not just greedy, it’s pathological and anyone who fails to recognize this must have had a very wretched childhood indeed. To Asma’s credit, he acknowledges that his argument is “counterintuitive.” Readers will find themselves wishing, however, that Asma hadn’t been so dismissive of his intuitions.

Asma erroneously asserts, for example, that the activities of those in the civil rights and feminist movements, for example, are expressions of favoritism and tribalism. That’s a fair charge to level, I suppose, against black supremacists, and perhaps against radical feminist separatists, but the two examples Asma cites, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, hardly fall into those categories. It’s not courting favoritism to demand rights for one’s group that are equal to the rest of society. Fighting for equal rights for members of one’s particular group is not an expression of favoritism or tribalism. Only fighting for more rights, or for preferential treatment, could be characterized that way.

Perhaps it the term “equal” that throws Asma off. He seems to have a particular aversion to it. He refers, for example, to what he claims is “American hostility to elitism,” but the example he gives is not one of anti-elitism, which would be hard to find in our culture, but anti-intellectualism. That is, he points out that “politicians work hard to downplay their own intelligence and intellectual accomplishments so they might seem less threatening (less eggheadish) to the public.”

We’re not hostile to elitism in the U.S. though. We’re the most thoroughly elitist society in the economically developed world. Everything from our systems of taxation, education, and health, to our system of criminal justice is set up to favor the wealthy elites.

Asma cites several studies that show that what is called “ingroup bias” appears to be inherent in human nature and uses this fact to support his position that favoritism is therefore “not a bad thing.” That something is inherent in human nature does not, however, entail that it is morally acceptable. There are all kinds of unfortunate tendencies in human nature that parents, societies, and finally civilization itself endeavors to control, tame, and even in some cases eradicate.

Asma’s whole defense of favoritism is not simply an expression of “the naturalistic fallacy,” referred to above. To the extent that he tries to defend favoritism by arguing that it’s innate, he’s also guilty of conflating an “ought” with an “is.” Hume referred to this mistake as the “is-ought” problem. That is, it is a misguided attempt to draw inferences about the nature of moral obligation (i.e., how people ought to behave) from observations about how people tend to behave (i.e., how they do behave) when the two things are qualitatively different and need to be kept rigorously distinguished.

Asma returns, at the end of the article, to the example of children. He appears to have hopped on the bandwagon of pseudo-intellectuals who have begun to express concern that we are being too nice to our children. It seems Asma’s son came home one day with a ribbon he’s “won” in a footrace, but Asma’s pride dissipated when his son explained that all the children had “won” the race, that they’d all been given ribbons. “I don’t want my son, and ever other kid in his class,” protests Asma, “to be told they’d ‘won’ the footrace at school just because we think their self-esteem can’t handle the truth. Equal rewards for unequal accomplishments foster the dogma of fairness, but they don’t improve my son or the other students.”

Leaving aside the issue that Asma has once again evinced that he has appropriated a toddler’s simplistic and hence erroneous definition of “fairness,” there’s something comically fantastical about Asma’s apparent fear that today’s youth are in danger of living out their lives in blissful ignorance of their own weaknesses and inadequacies The likelihood, for example, that admissions to elite universities are suddenly going to become merit blind, or that we will cease keeping statistics on the accomplishments of professional athletes seems vanishingly small, and the only professions that seem openly to embrace the conspicuously inept are those in the financial industry.

Sadly, children will learn all too soon that there are winners and losers and that the former are rewarded while the latter are not. Not only does it do no harm to stave off that realization as long as possible, it may actually do a great deal of good if it helps us to teach children that their worth as individuals is not dependent on their bettering their peers in contests. Not everyone can be a winner. Most people have to content themselves with being also-rans. If we can teach children early that the also-rans are to be lauded as an essential part of the race (after all, there is no race without them), then we might actually help to increase the number of people who are able to live happy and fulfilling lives.

Asma’s fears are not restricted, however, to the specter of a utopian future for his progeny. Even while wealth is increasingly transferred to a dwindling minority of the American population, Asma is tortured by feverish nightmares of creeping socialism. “Liberals,” he asserts, “say ‘fairness’ when the mean ‘all things should be equal’”–as if we, in the U.S., stood in imminent danger of sweeping political reforms that would make the social-welfare states of Northern Europe look like Czarist Russia by comparison.

What’s disturbing is not so much Asma’s argument as the fact that it found a reputable (or at least once reputable) academic publisher and that it was actually excerpted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Noam Chomsky said somewhere that despite all the atrocities he had spent a large part of his life chronicling, he believed humanity was making moral progress. You don’t see moral defenses of slavery anymore, he pointed out, where as you did see such things in earlier periods of human history. Yes, maybe that’s true. But if we’ve regressed to the point that it is now socially acceptable to publish moral defenses of favoritism, and attacks on fairness, can defenses of slavery be far behind?

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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