Fairness Is Good, But Empathy Is Better

Treating everyone equally sounds good, but it won't work.

Posted Mar 25, 2019

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

For the longest time I was convinced that fairness in society was a noble goal and led to equality.  Fair legal processes were worth fighting for, and as a result our lives would be better.  I still believe fairness is important, but I have had a change of heart, or maybe it is more of a change in perspective.  Fairness is important, but not the best approach to building a better world; I have come to believe that fairness should not be our ultimate standard of behavior.  Empathy should, and that is different. 

There are two ways to view fairness, distributive justice, and procedural justice.  Distributive justice calls for “sharing the wealth,” providing for those who are in need from those who have more means.  We do it in various ways, whether it is through taxing people to pay for social services for the needy or encouraging those with resources to donate to those in need; we do this by appealing to people’s caring side, and we even reward them with tax breaks.  While this can help some people, it is usually temporary and does not change the reasons they are in need.  Procedural justice calls for fairness in opportunity, in processes, and then the outcomes are a result of fair competition.  We do this when we have laws that treat everyone the same in terms of participation and opportunity, or create laws that allow for those who may have historically been left out to get a chance to participate now.  Once procedural justice is in place and everyone has an equal chance to participate, then distributive justice is less important.  The goal of procedural justice is to build a level playing field; everyone can participate, no one starts out with an unfair advantage, we all play to the best of our abilities.  The outcome, when it is a level playing field, is that people succeed or they don’t based on their own merits. 

The problem with procedural justice is that although it is a worthy cause, we are likely to never have a level playing field.  Whether as a result of long-standing advantages based on one’s family history, or biases in the way people are treated due to racism, classism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination, there will never be an equal start nor a level playing field.  And there are other reasons that people are different and cannot benefit from exactly the same process.  We can try and even out the differences in where we each start life, but it would never be possible to account for all the variations and needs.

Rather than hope for a level playing field, we should ask ourselves the question: “If I were in that person’s situation, how would I want to be treated and how do I think I should be treated?” That’s it.  No qualifications like “I would never let that happen to me” or “it’s their fault, so why should I have to share what I have worked hard for?”  Just trade places, and then imagine, without judgment, without commentary, “how would I want to be treated, how should I be treated, and therefore how should I treat others.” 

We should be using empathy to understand what other people’s lives are like.  This is not easy, and we can never know everything about another person.  But when we step into other people’s shoes, when we trade places, and when we imagine how we want to be treated and should be treated, we gain insight into how to treat others.  If we apply the standards of what is good and right for ourselves to what is good and right for others, we are more likely to treat people better and in the end, build a more just world.