And Restore Fairness to the Galaxy!


A thought on fairness/justice. With a big Star Wars analogy.

It is always annoying when I find an inconstancy in my beliefs. I know that I should probably change one, but I don't know which. Unless (best case) the contradiction turns out to be invalid. Unfortunately, I think I found another contradictory pair.

The first belief is that no system of rules (including no rules) can (unequivocally) create fairness. The problem here is that fairness is not well defined and different definitions produce different outcomes. Whatever rules system is adopted, people who would have done better under another system will feel that they have been unfairly treated. Then (depending on the social situation) they may make a fuss about it. Changing the rules doesn't solve the problem; it just changes who the winners and losers are. So we haven't really created fairness. Instead, we simply hid the question of how we decide who wins.

Let's take a practical example. The Rebel Alliance (or the Resistance, or whatever it's now called) is trying to blow up the 4th Death Star. Unfortunately, the Empire (First Order, etc.) has finally fixed their recurring bug and there is simply no way to use X-Wings to destroy the main reactor. So the revised plan calls for loading the Millennium Falcon with Jedi and flying it down one of those green planet-destroying laser tubes, where the Jedi will use their force powers to lock all the power regulators in the "maximum" position. When the reactor starts to explode, the Falcon will escape down the laser tube in hyperspace.

Unfortunately, the Empire ran a pretty effective religious persecution campaign against the Jedi, and the only survivors are Luke Skywalker (a Jedi Master) and Rey (his untrained apprentice). In venerable Star Wars tradition, the Rebellion send both of them. The mission is an easy success, with Luke using his superior Force powers to lock no less than 7 power regulators while inexperienced Rey handles the last one. There is a moment of worry when Kylo Ren seals off the laser tube to trap them, but it turns out he sealed the wrong one and everyone escapes safely. Including Kylo Ren, unfortunately, but you can't have everything. It's another great victory for freedom and blowing up artificial moons.

The problem shows up when the Falcon gets back to Yavin Base (which has been re-occupied) and they are giving out awards. General Leia intends to give them both a medal and move on. Luke, however, holds this to be unfair, since he did 7 times what Rey did, but is getting the same reward. So Leia, to avoid trouble, agrees to give him 7 medals. But now Rey is unhappy. After all, she was working as hard as Luke was for just as long, and her actions were every bit as essential his (since all 8 power regulators needed to be locked). Both positions are arguably the fair one and there is no way to choose between them without implicitly taking sides. So Leia eventually decides that neither of them is acting like a proper Jedi, takes back the medals, and sends them both to bed without supper. And there is much rejoicing.

The other belief is that it is not the various forms of oppression scattered around the world that are unusual, it is the (comparable) absence in the modern West that stands out. The strong ruling over the weak follows from human nature, and it is the Western exception that we need to explain (and ideally replicate elsewhere).

Since this is the West, the cause was probably either Christianity or the Enlightenment (or at least people will argue that it was). However, both of these have problems. On one hand, there have been other Christian societies that were oppressive (e.g. Czarist Russia). You could argue that the recent West is the first time Christian ideals properly implemented, but that is historically dubious and merely hides the question of why. On the other hand, the Enlightenment was only a couple hundred years ago, and the exceptionalism started before that (e.g. the Magna Carta). And while I have never been entirely clear on what the Enlightenment includes, I'm pretty sure that Communism is on the list (or a descendant idea), and the USSR was oppressive in the extreme. We may actually be able to answer this question eventually. Christian influence is waning in the West today, while the Enlightenment is still going strong, so we will be able to watch for whether the oppression comes back and decide based on that. But probably not yet.

So here's the contradiction: If no rules can produce fairness, how can changing the rules make things less fair?

I am tentatively thinking that, while it is very hard to figure out exactly what is fair, it usually isn't to hard to identify things that are unfair. For example, it would have been unfair to give a medal to Rey and not to Luke. Similarly, it wouldn't be fair to decree that medals were fair game, and anyone who was able to take one was allowed to. So maybe fairness is like a mountain range, with the highest point being the most fair. There might be genuine disagreement on which peak is the tallest, but everyone agrees that it is not the valleys.

This suggests that, if the world is arguing about some "fairness" question (are the Jews allowed to try to eliminate the remaining Nazis?), the debate probably isn't really about fairness. The might be larger issues (freedom of speech, preventing genocide, etc.) at stake. If not, the groups are probably mostly upset because they see what they stand to lose if the rival "fairness" definition is adopted. Scott Addams has a great quotation for this, but it's in a book (The Way of the Weasel) that I don't have at hand. My "memory" version reads:
"Fairness occurs when keep everything you had and get half of what the other guy had."

The more I look, the ore I think this is the definition a lot of people are using. So here is a more pro-fairness misquote (also memory) from C.S. Lewis:
"To consider your own happiness more important than someone else's is an error of perception, like if you were to assume that the nearest telegraph pole really is the largest."


I got the following useful response:
Very well thought out Richard. However I will disagree with your assertion that Western society doesn't have powerful people lording over the "weak". It might not be as blatant, it's more political and background stuff.

But I think that's control, domination and oppression all the same. Various activist groups being funded by this rich company or that rich person. Which then causes headaches for this person who is serving on this government committee, etc etc.

Subvert control, is still control no matter how you slice it.

Very narrow point, but I thought I should share.
My response was:
I agree with you that everything is not great in the West. It is probably good that someone mentioned that.

However, I do think there is less oppression here for two reasons:
  1. All the political and background stuff also happens in other places. People just don't notice it as much because they are worrying about the other kind.
  2. People from other places want to come here and they say that things are better here.

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