Skip to content

Fairness and family values.

By Stephen T. Asma.

'A circle of tribal beneficence.' Image: Liverpool Maritime Museum.FAIRNESS IS OUR national creed. But fairness unfairly dominates our culture, and crowds out the virtues of favoritism. Contrary to the simple-minded equation of nepotism and corruption, I submit that our kith and kin form a circle of tribal beneficence that is equally ethical but incompatible with reigning egalitarianism. If we embraced our filial biases, we could better exercise some disappearing virtues like loyalty. And the proof that this could be extrapolated out to the wider social ethic is evidenced by thousands of years of Chinese morality, which is premised on the preferential sentiments of family piety.  

Many people will counter-argue my pro-nepotism position by suggesting that we need fairness (and a lot of it) because we instinctively play favorites. The excellent social theorist Barry Schwartz has challenged my view, with what I’ll call the “counter-weight argument.” He asks us to consider “the possibility that the only thing that keeps favoritism within reasonable bounds is precisely our commitment to fairness.  In other words, favoritism comes ‘naturally,’ but fairness does not.  Maybe it takes all of our will, rational justification, and ideological commitment to fairness to keep favoritism within bounds.  Were people to subscribe to [Asma’s] view, perhaps the center would not hold, and we would slowly but inexorably give in to the worst of our ‘us vs. them’ tendencies.”1

I take this objection very seriously. I want to promote the underdog idea that favoritism too has an ethical structure (i.e., it’s not just self-interest and corruption), but maybe I’m overplaying my hand. The heuristic idealism of fairness may be just the thing that constrains too much biased nepotism. This is a commonly held defense of fairness, but I think on closer scrutiny that it’s a misunderstanding.

In our culture, we frequently use “fairness” when we mean other things (e.g., tolerance, generosity, etc.), and we criticize “favoritism” when we mean to criticize other things (e.g., corruption, prejudice, etc.). For example, what’s really at stake in the suggestion that we need a counter-weight to our natural tribalism is that we need ideological reminders to motivate us to help strangers. We need a “good Samaritan” trigger that pulls us out of our default nepotism.

I agree with this, to some extent. But why are we so quick to call this fairness? And why would we need a concept like equality to motivate our good-Samaritan behaviors? Reaching out to strangers actually looks more like charity and compassion, which often get confusedly labeled as “fairness” but shouldn’t be.

Why would we need a concept like equality to motivate our good-Samaritan behaviors? Image via Paradise Reporter. If you plug in the word and – more importantly – the act of charity (where we ordinarily use “fairness”), we find that the sought-after moral upgrade is still achieved: the less fortunate become better off than before. People who are triggered to charitable acts share their good fortune with others. But it isn’t fairness that accomplishes this moral goal – it isn’t the pursuit of equality; it is kindness, good will, and, dare I say, a little bit of “favor” (in this case, for strangers).

IN OUR CURRENT culture, the language of fairness is ubiquitous around this kind of charitable benevolence toward strangers. Sadly, there is not enough of this compassion in our contemporary culture, but it doesn’t improve matters to incorrectly call it fairness and expect egalitarian rules or utilitarian calculations to fix it. Our charity to strangers is not motivated by the idea that they are our equals, or that they have equal claim on us as our kith and kin have, or that they merit our goodwill by some excellent achievements, or that they have human rights, or that we’re restoring some imbalance in the social system. When we move beyond the civil courtesy that we owe to strangers and we donate to some cause or give to someone on the street or whatever, it is because we’re moved by sympathy. We are stirred to care about these particular sufferers. We identify with them emotionally. Love, not fairness, is the engine of philanthropy, and the counterbalance of too much kin favoritism is a more broadly cast affection. But, of course, there’s a limit to the breadth of one’s affection, for as Graham Greene reminds us, “one can’t love humanity, one can only love people.”2

Just as compassion (not fairness) more truthfully captures our philanthropic urges, so too justice (not fairness) more accurately captures our concern for the disadvantaged. Most of our complex grievances about social justice get reduced down to cries for greater “fairness” because we lack a more nuanced moral vocabulary.

If we get rid of our creed of fairness, the counter-weight argument goes, then we will be in worse shape. But we have much older virtue traditions of justice, generosity, magnanimity, and compassion, that have atrophied during the rise of instrumental modernity and these can more ably inspire the needed good-Samaritan values.

I’m not suggesting a conservative return to religious values here. Instead, I am isolating the emotional engine that lives underneath both secular and sacred forms of charity and ethics generally. Nepotistic virtues like loyalty are emotion-driven, but good-Samaritan virtue toward strangers is also emotionally driven. It is the affective connection or concern that thrives in tribalism, but also stimulates philanthropy beyond immediate circles.

Cosmopolitan thinkers voice a version of the counter-weight argument when they call us to adopt a different set of public values than the more biased domain of private values. From Immanuel Kant’s autonomous agent to contemporary notions of a public “thin self,” the liberal cosmopolitan view has decontextualized people in order to protect against bias and favoritism.

Stephen Asma: Against Fairness.My view, however, is hard to square with this cosmopolitan view of universal decontextualized agents. Like the communitarian philosophers (e.g., Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel), I reject the disembodied approach of egalitarianism, but I’m offering something new here too. The communitarians all stress the community of “tradition” in opposition to egalitarianism. They think community comes from being Catholic, or Jewish, or French Canadian, or some other linguistic, or ideological tribe. But my view is that true communities are “affective communities” – emotional bonds precede cultural/historical/linguistic traditions, though they certainly feed into each other. This unappreciated point reveals the true bond underlying cultural tradition, and also reveals the flexibility and changeable nature of favoritism and tribalism. If being Catholic or Jewish failed to give us affective community, then we would undoubtedly keep searching. Being Catholic or Jewish or a Democrat, for example, is not an end in itself, but a means to an emotional end. And this shows that we don’t understand our own liberal tradition very well, if we think we’ve evolved beyond tribalism.

Stephen T. Asma is a Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago, and author of  Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press).

A video ‘trailer’ for the book:


  1. I am thankful to Dr. Barry Schwartz for his careful and critical reading of my position, and for his many insightful suggestions. This quote is from a personal communication.
  2. Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment (Penguin Classics, 2005).

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *