Life is unfair. We’ve heard that as part of everyone’s litany, especially when speaking to children who don’t quite get it. I remember a time when my son, who was probably about 11 or 12 at the time, had a eureka moment about the unfair. On vacation there were many times when he would say that something was unfair as children typically do. My response was just “tough luck.” He was reading a Charles Dickens novel at the time, I can’t remember which one, probably Oliver Twist, and he suddenly realized a truth about life. He said “this is about tough luck.” And there you have it.
Life is unfair because human being are unequal. We are big and small, male and female, strong and weak, smart and dumb, old and young, short and tall, rich and poor, and thereon lies everything that is unfair. Luckily, societies recognize this and create laws that attempt to level the playing field making the correct assumption that we are all created equal in terms of rights. It doesn’t work out that way always, but societies try. Is it unfair that some of the hardest working people, like teachers, make so little, and parasites of the rentier class can live without struggle? Is it unfair that the larger bully pushes his way in front of the line. Yes, all that is unfair. We rely on morality, rules, laws, and societal pressure to correct these things, but all too often they don’t work or the bully escapes. It would be negligent to just chalk this up to tough luck, even though that’s exactly what it is.
As citizens we struggle and strive to create an equal world. We create a document that begins “all men are created equal,” but even at the time that was written there were slaves to whom it didn’t apply. Surely that is the most unfair thing ever. Life must be considered as a struggle for the just. So much of unfairness is about defining and creating a world with justice, a world that obviates a natural condition that would create chaos if we were to let it run free. If the weak had no recourse against the strong in a civilization, revolutions occur. And they do occur for that very reason—the lack of recourse. A just world benefits everyone. That’s part of the social contract.
But the social contract is a philosophical state to explain the need for a world that subverts the state of nature that is short, brutish and nasty in the words of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The social contract, while unhistorical and only a concept of political philosophy, stated that citizens had the obligation to obey civil authority, the government, while the government had the duty to protect the person and his property. In some sense we can think of the origin of justice as being rooted in the recognition of unfairness.