The very symbol of American ethics—Lady Justice—wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale. We’ve all embraced the model of unbiased fairness to describe the best way forward –it has penetrated the social psyche of America. But so many of our social ills have nothing to do with fairness and cannot be fixed by applying the fairness tonic.
In this election season, Obama and Romney have been falling over themselves to assert their “fairness cred.” And each side of the partisan debate uses the word differently –conservatives, like Romney, mean “merit-based rewards” when they speak of fairness (the spoils should go to the winners), but liberals, like Obama, use fairness lingo to mean “equality” of outcomes (like equal benefits, goods, and wealth).
The whole idea of fairness is unhelpful in contemporary politics. Is it more “fair” to privilege people of color in affirmative action scenarios, or is it more fair to treat everyone in a color-blind unbiased fashion? The concept of fairness won’t help resolve this, but politicians on either side of the aisle could make real progress if they jettisoned the fairness lingo and replaced it with the pursuit of social health.
Politics is more like medicine, not like math or physics. Justice, like health, is advanced through practical reason, not theoretical reason. And our body-politic needs some medical attention.
It is possible to reasonably treat people preferentially, if the larger social organism is benefitted. This is not the same as simply enacting policies for the majority. A doctor’s goal is whole body health, but he doesn’t treat the whole body equally –he ministers to medical problems individually –doing immunotherapy here, radiation therapy there, hormonal adjustments, setting broken bones, dialysis, transfusions, and so on. It is essential to treat different organs with uneven and unfair attention and care. That careful discrimination is what brings health to the overall organism and, by analogy, the nation.
Obama’s closing speech in the October 16th Presidential debate expresses the strange doublethink that we all do regarding fairness: “Everybody should play by the same rules,” he said. This is an abstract principle that many politicians want to lay across all Americans. But if my medical analogy holds, that won’t work because different parts of the body need different kinds of attention. A good doctor does not diagnose simply by applying universal rules to particular cases, nor does she treat all bodies alike. Clinical knowledge is acquired by taking a fine-grained case history.
However, then Obama subtly shifted his closing remarks toward this more medical metaphor --to the story about his Grandfather’s G.I. Bill, claiming “That wasn’t a handout. That advanced the whole country.” Now, I think he’s quite right in the second comment. And he’s right in the sense that differential and even preferential treatment to some communities (e.g., former soldiers, certain minorities, people with disabilities, poor, etc) will improve the health of the whole social organism. We don’t need to add rhetorical verbiage about fairness and equality here, because justice can be achieved better when we attend to the uneven complexities of our social world. The point is this: there is bad preferential treatment (e.g., tax loopholes for the 1%) and there is good preferential treatment (e.g., G.I. Bills, etc), but “preferential” itself is not a sin, and “fairness” is not always a solution.