Who Gets to Say What is Fair?

There is a word floating around in conversations and public statements that simply does not belong in most sentences: fair.

During public rhetoric about a situation dubbed the “fiscal cliff,” numerous individuals talked about solutions to the problem, and they often said that they wanted a solution that was fair. Some said it wasn’t fair that some people paid no taxes. Some said it was only fair that some people paid more taxes. If you think deeply about the nation’s economic and social issues, you quickly realize that fairness has nothing to do with either the creation of the problem or its solutions. You also realize immediately that declaring something to be fair is not the same thing as proving that it is so.

The word fair sounds really pleasant and accommodating. People who use this word think they are promoting kindness in the same way as a mother who insists that her child share his candy with a child who doesn’t have any. In the context of good etiquette and polite discourse, the word fair may have some value. As a principle for governance, it has no value at all. As a principle for spiritual life, it has no value at all.

The first problem with using the word fair is that it has no independent meaning. If I use the word tree there is a fundamental definition of a tree that makes it possible even for people ignorant of biology to identify most trees. Someone can almost certainly find an exception to my observation, but if I drive around a residential neighborhood looking at the landscaping, I can almost certainly distinguish between trees, flower-beds and rocks. Botanists and geologists can probably do a better job than I, but it isn’t really hard to recognize most trees.

If you ask me to tell you whether a law is fair, however, I may be a lot less successful. For example, People tell me that the Affordable Care Act is fair because it requires every employer who meets a specified definition of the word employer to provide health insurance for every employee, and the health insurance provided must include all the services classified as preventive health services. The Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to declare what services are on the list of preventive health services and nobody can dispute the list or opt out of the coverage for any reason whatsoever – except for a narrowly defined group of people employed by churches with specific theological issues. Supporters of the law declare that it is fair; opponents of the law declare that it is unfair.

The reason for the difference is that the word fair depends for its meaning on the meaning of other words. Typical definitions of the word fair include phrases such as “free from self-interest,” or “just to all parties,” or “marked by impartiality.” Every definition of the word fair assumes that all the people who use that word are in complete agreement as to what constitutes self-interest and in agreement that self-interest is a bad thing, or they have all agreed that some division of assets or power is just or perhaps they have all concurred on an arrangement that they agree is impartial or bipartisan. While some say it would be wonderful if everyone agreed on those things, in truth, there is no such agreement on any of these things.

For example, several months ago, I fell into a conversation with a person who was trying to persuade me to agree that the state should authorize homosexuals to marry, because it wasn’t fair for Christians to expect everyone else to go along with a biblical rule for life. The assumption of his statement was that my point of view was delegitimized by the fact that I believe the Bible is God’s guide for humans in faith and life. He did not refute my contention that human beings are designed biologically for heterosexual fulfillment, and he did not refute my contention that anthropological studies documenting human society for thousands of years concur that human beings consider marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, viewpoints which concur with biblical revelation. Rather, he leaped over my point of view and used the word fair to delegitimize my right to reach my own conclusion. By using the word fair in this way, the person who disagreed with me completely erased my right to participate in a discussion of a proposed law. If it was not fair for me to have a point of view that differed with his, then his point of view won the day without any dissent. Suddenly, we were not discussing whether my point of view made sense. Instead, we were discussing whether I had a right to my own point of view.

Christians who attempt to discuss cultural issues and express the viewpoints that grow out of their religious convictions are at a great handicap if other parties to the discussion refuse to discuss the actual issues. Christians faced with scornful dismissal of not only their views but their very right to have views will struggle with their own attitudes as feelings of anger and outrage well up. Christians are human beings, and when any human is treated with disdain, it is crazy-making. When someone argues that you are not being fair when you root your opinion in your faith, it is hard to get the discussion on track again. The conversations that center on cultural differences will not likely come to any resolution when the word fair is invoked.

In my case, I rejected the use of the word fair, and I stated my contention that I had a right to a point of view as surely as any other citizen. The Catholic Charities of Illinois took that stance in 2011 when they were told that they were required to make adoptive placements in contradiction to the teachings of their religion. They, too, were told that their point of view was not fair. Since I was simply having a conversation with another voter, I suffered no loss by standing up for my right to believe my viewpoint and to advocate for it, but not so with the Catholic Charities. The courts decided that Catholic teachings were not fair and Catholic Charities came to an end in Illinois.

That is the problem with the word fair. Whether something appears to be fair or not depends entirely on who gets to decide what the word fair means.

It is easy to be blind-sided by the use of this word, because we all think we actually want to be fair. We don’t want to appear selfish. We don’t want to cheat anyone. We don’t want to be rude. And as Christians, we really don’t want to appear to be argumentative. We want to be loving and kind and gracious to all. We remember that Jesus said, “Judge not,” so we try not to say words that will cast judgment on anyone. When our very right to have a dissenting viewpoint is dismissed as being unfair to proponents of a different viewpoint, we feel ambushed, and it is hard to continue the discussion.

Maybe the real problem is that we have heard so much more secular advocacy than Christian advocacy that we are not entirely sure that we are entitled to have a role in shaping the culture. That is exactly what secular thinkers would like for us to believe. Secular thinkers automatically dismiss every view rooted in religious conviction as unworthy of public consideration.

Our founding fathers knew what it was like to engage in discussions of deeply divisive issues. They knew both the argument that some viewpoint was automatically right because it concurred with accepted religion and the argument that some viewpoint was automatically wrong because it originated in religious conviction. They wrote the Bill of Rights to assure that every viewpoint would be treated respectfully in the forum of ideas where voters would sort out their cultural and political issues. The First Amendment assures that religious convictions have the same standing as secular ones. We do not need to argue that our viewpoints are fair, because that word is a red herring. Rather, we should speak up for cultural standards that are good for human beings. The fact that God’s revealed truth in the Bible helps us to understand what those standards ought to be does not invalidate the truth that those standards make life better for humans. We simply need to stand up for our convictions that the culture should elevate human beings to the status God gives us. We lovingly and honestly stand for principles which make human life and culture better.

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

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7 thoughts on “Who Gets to Say What is Fair?”

  1. Yeah, I’m sure Hobby Lobby thinks it’s unfair that they are being required to offer the night after pill as “preventative” health care. I’m glad they are standing against it but if they don’t win the appeal, Hobby Lobby/Mardel will be closing their doors.

    More and more names are being added to Christians as time goes on. Unfair is just the latest along with bigoted, intolerant, and close minded. What’s funny is that they don’t realize that by thinking their opinion is right and ours is doesn’t matter, they are being bigoted, intolerant, close minded, and unfair.

    Good post, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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  2. Yes, the meaning of “fair” is definitely ambiguous. We hear little (and not so little) children argue with parents that this rule or that rule “That’s not fair”, anything from who gets the bigger slice of pie to who gets how much for allowance. Your discussion is very good – too bad more people don’t read and understand the concept! Thanks for your words – I hope to pass this on to several people. (Of course, there are those on my list to whom I could never send this, because they would think that it was not “fair”!

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  3. This is an ongoing conversation with our 3 Es. We can’t promise “fair” because fair is so ambiguous.
    Thanks for putting this in the context of our government. Perhaps if more people understood that the only truly fair thing is death for sin, the term “fair” would be used much less.

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