Against Fairness


Stephen T. Asma’s book is titled Against Fairness, but it doesn’t take too long for the reader to discover what he is for. Asma thinks we’ve neglected nepotism, favoritism, and particularity in our relationships and our moral reasoning. Our natural impulse to play favorites is, in his opinion, actively suppressed: children have to bring in Valentine’s cards for the whole class, fast-tracking a friend in a job search is unethical, etc. In a world fixated on fairness, Asma turns to fiction to show us a positive view of particularity:

Many folk tales, fairy tales, and contemporary kids’ stories reveal and even lionize favoritism…
The Velveteen Rabbit… convey[s] the idea that loving something or someone intensely enough can actually change the beloved’s metaphysical status.

And that last line ought to sound pretty familiar to Christians. Christ’s love for us is enough to change our metaphysical status, from mere creatures to adopted sons and daughters of God. And it would be bizarre to view Christ’s sacrifice through the lens of fairness. As an act of grace, it was unmerited. But, in our own lives, and our own relationships, things aren’t that unequal, so how should we think about egalitarianism?

Asma seems most comfortable with preference and favoritism when they are arbitrary. He approves of Confucian filial pieties, and scoffs at Euthyphro’s choice to testify against his father in a murder case. Preference for our own family or our own county is not a matter of merit. We favor them simply because they are ours. This kind of love resembles storge, the love borne of association and familiarity, not of the virtues or interests of the beloved.

Preference on this basis, Asma concludes, cannot be a source of pride. No one boasts of having gotten a promotion because a family member pulled strings. And, although we might end up feeling as obliged under a system of favoritism as the children in the egalitarian classroom do, when they walk in with an armful of Valentines, it is always clear that our duties spring from relationships, not from the inherent rights of the person demanding our affections.

Any normative description of our duties of love will sometimes feel burdensome, but Asma argues that elevating particularity shields us from feeling an unnatural obligation to everyone. In his view, we must have some way to choose whom to love most, to avoid falling into “the familiar Western hypocrisy—the pretense of believing we can be saints, but all the while acting like mere mortals.” If we refuse to choose, we might constrain our love to the smallest, abstracted type that we can offer to humanity in general.

Asma finds it implausible that we could offer anything but a shadow of love if we offered it to everyone; it would be too exhausting for humans to sustain empathy to suffer for everyone. And Christianity does not necessarily disagree. Only Christ could suffer for all, and, although we ask for help, we will not manifest perfect love for others on this side of the grave.

It is better to offer deeper love to one person, and to pray to be able to offer it to others, than to deny what we can offer out of shame that we offer it so rarely. But we should never see our preferences and limits as entirely natural or comfortable. The ache of falling short of sainthood is what spurs us on, and helps us recognize the enormity of God’s love, so that we may return it in our halting way. We might well pray, “Lord, I love, help thou my lack of love.”

In the final reckoning, Stephen Asma is not unfair to fairness. He merely accuses modern, Western culture of overweighting it. In the echoes of “That’s not fair!” from playgrounds, he hears a generation that treated one element of morality as the final principle to appeal to. Insofar as we are all humans, we may be entitled to similar treatment, but the principle of fairness does not tell us what that treatment ought to be. It is as satisfied by the extravagant love of St. Francis as by the egoism of Ayn Rand. We need a deeper set of values to teach us what we ought to offer to others. 

Leah Libresco

Leah Libresco is the author of Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer. Her second book, on the Benedict Option projects to build thicker community that can happen in the timescale of a couple months, will come out with Ignatius in the Fall of 2018. She is the wife of Alexi Sargeant.