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What is Fair?

In the essay Photo of boy in public housing with an iPad prompts debate over what the poor should have, blogger Jarvis DeBerry describes the moral outrage expressed by some readers over a little boy occupying himself with an iPad in a poor neighborhood. Further outrage, as well as outrage over this outrage, was expressed in the comments section and reflects the ongoing dilemma of what to do about the poor and our understanding of what is fair.


Jonathan Haidtis a leading expert on human concepts of fairness. “Fairness” is hardwired into our brains, although some people have a stronger response than others. When something seems unfair to us, we take a hit in the amygdala, the part of the brain that handles threat response. Once someone is clear that something is unfair, no amount of logic can over-come the electro-chemical storm that has hijacked their thought process, a process amply demonstrated by DeBerry’s article. Understanding and any application of logic, must come when the person is in a calm state - which is true of any sort of learning.

But how do we determine what is fair? Such determinations are based on our beliefs about how the cultural system works, and on our spiritual beliefs. In his book The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise, Arthur Brooks describes this difference between two economic viewpoints: Definition one: Redistributive fairness. It is fair to equalize rewards. Inequality is inherently unfair.
Definition two: Meritocratic fairness. Fairness means matching reward to merit. Forced equality is inherently unfair.

If we believe the system is rigged, then forcing those who have more to contribute to those who have less, feels very fair. If we believe the system rewards hard work, then taking from those who have worked very hard to achieve what they have feels very unfair. I seek answers to this question in history and in Pagan religion. What answers do you have to the question of fairness and how do you seek those answers?

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Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Tuesday, 04 September 2012

    Questions of redistributive (I prefer the term "restorative") justice vs. meritocracy actually *do* come back to religion. If you believe in traditionally-imagined omnipotent deity (or deities, as this idea works just as well in many polytheist pantheons as in an Abrahamic one) a god(s) who controls fate utterly, then doing anything -- magical or mundane -- to "equalize" the fates of various individuals is, by definition, hubris. (See Elani's post today on this topic, as well as previous posts of hers about the use of magic as being suspect in recon faiths for this very reason.) If, on the other hoof, you take a post-modern (or at least, post-enlightenment) position towards social evolution and apply it to religion, then nothing is set in stone by the gods, and progressive goals served by social engineering (by whatever method, be it social security, the Earned Income credit, or simple universal education) can be seen, not as hubris, but as a high moral virtue.

    I see an increasing gap (I'm tempted to use the term "gulf") between these perspectives in the contemporary Pagan movement. Do you see what I see?

  • Carol Maltby
    Carol Maltby Tuesday, 04 September 2012

    "Fair" probably starts with knowing the context of the photo, and knowing what assumptions we are making that may or may not have anything to do with the 125th of a second in which the picture was taken.

  • Angela 	Gamblin
    Angela Gamblin Monday, 10 September 2012

    After having read some of the posts in reply to that image over on DeBerry's blog, I was truly struck by those comments of people who actually felt that this child -or his parents, by proxy had committed some horrible offense to society, simply because the boy had access to a tablet. Perhaps there was disappointment that the boy was doing something constructive, as opposed to validating what would be(to some) comforting stereotypes (?) I don't think it matters if the kid's parents bought the gadget, or it was gifted, that the child was possibly residing in the projects or not. More than anything, Those comments were very telling about the priorities of this society, and possibly why we are falling behind. I can't imagine this image causing such an uproar in any other civilised nation.

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