“No Fair”: Fairness isn’t real

“No fair,” cries my son when he thinks his sister got a bigger piece of candy. “No fair,” he cries when I tell him he can’t go outside and play until he cleans his room. I politely remind him that sometimes, life isn’t fair.

We see this often with children, but we don’t recognize it in ourselves as adults. How many times have you ever thought to yourself: Why me? Why not me? Or, What did I do to deserve this? You might have felt that tinge of anger when you witnessed another person get promoted at work or in the gym when you are sure you have put in more time and effort.

The idea of fairness was shot down millennia ago. According to Ecclesiastes 9:11, the supposed wisest man in history, King Solomon wrote:

Again, I observed this on the earth: the race is not always won by the swiftest, the battle is not always won by the strongest; prosperity does not always belong to those who are the wisest, wealth does not always belong to those who are the most discerning, nor does success always come to those with the most knowledge–for time and chance may overcome them all.

The course of humanity is full of instances where fairness is a figment of our imagination. One nation enslaves another because it can. One man does little to garner wealth while others work themselves ragged only to die of starvation. It can drive you crazy if you try to look at every instance of unfairness across the span of our existence.

What Can We Do About Unfairness?

Instead of crying about it, we could focus on ourselves. I recently told a friend about my bad habit of looking at other people’s lawns and thinking about how much greener their grass always seems to be. It is something I need to break and get busy tending my own lawn. The issue is much deeper than turf-level. I do this with everything.

Almost as if to reprimand me for looking, Epictetus said in his Discourses, “am I to cry over the events of fortune, saying, ‘oh, but my nose is runny.’ Fool! What are your hands for? Are they not to wipe your own nose? You could ask the gods why there are runny noses in the world. But how much better is it to wipe your nose and quit complaining?” (paraphrased).

That’s an old analogy simply saying quit crying and do what you can to improve the situation. Life’s not fair. It never was and never will be.

I will leave you with a scene from one of my favorite films, Shawshank Redemption. While Red and Andy are discussing pipe dreams, Red thinks Andy should give up his idea of breaking out of prison, a place where he was framed and placed against his will (the perfect scenario of unfairness). Andy chooses to take life by the reins. He tells Red, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”

Wipe your nose. Live your life. It’s the only one you get.


A version of this article was originally posted on my personal blog, http://www.thephilosophicalfighter.com. You can find me on Instagram @thephilosophicalfighter.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments. Feel free to share.

26 thoughts on ““No Fair”: Fairness isn’t real

    1. You are welcome. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Sometimes, we all need a reminder.

    1. You are right. We often forget it, myself included. I often write to remind myself. Thanks for reading and commenting, Todd.

  1. Yesterday, an at-fault accident gave me pause to wonder why? Today I concluded that it is an opportunity to decide to see it as a test of equanimity. How am I doing? Pretty well, I think. It reminds me to be thankful for all blessings, great and small—though some are more pleasant than others!

    1. Your story is a great example of why it’s important to not see “good” or “bad” in events. See them as simply something that happened. What we do before (preparation) and what we do afterward (reflection) is often the important parts.

      1. Thanks for reminding me—good timing! I needed to hear this today. I just saw your response, a month after you wrote it! Thanks to Ana for drawing my attention to it by liking.

  2. If “fairness” existed, then children would not get inoperable cancer while old curmudgeons live on and on and on well after they’ve lived full lives.

    This is an interesting topic because Americans grow up believing in fairness. We recognize what unfairness feels like (and we recognize it when we see it) and rail against it. In all sort of activities, including sporting events, we pull for underdogs because their opponents seem to have unfair advantages of one type or another.

    I studied the contract theories and theorists as an undergraduate. I read The Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes, more than once. He says that humans contract to create “government” because the “state of nature” is so Darwinianly scary that atrocities can occur unless some controlling power keeps the uberpowerful in check and protects those who require protection. Prior to the create of government, there is a state of “war of all against all” so we give up some of our individual power to create a system where something like “fairness” can be achieved.

    The notion of “fairness” and “justice” are beautiful, but they always require that some power intervenes to enforce them.

    Lots to think about in your piece. Thanks for writing it.

    By the way, on a personal note, I was just diagnosed with an eye ailment that cannot be cured; it can only be managed. The thought that this was unfair never crossed my mind. What makes me special so that I can claim that no sickness should ever affect me? This is the Stoic in me understanding that when it comes to the kind of physical degeneration we all face, the notice of something being unfair is really a kind of arrogance that denies the reality of what it means to be human and mortal.

    1. If there was a love button, I would click it for your comment, Troy. Not about the eye ailment, but about the essence. I think you accurately describe much of the American attitude, namely that fairness is an inalienable right. We would do well to remember that life is often “nasty, brutish, and short,” but we can make the best of it if we accept it and move forward. Thanks for sharing.

      1. In thinking about fairness, I make a distinction between what’s clearly obvious in nature and the actions we take to assure that some level of fairness be achieved in society. Some of us are stronger and some weaker. Some of us will live longer and others shorter. In that sense, fairness is irrelevant. But then there is the function of human institutions. Just because some are stronger does not mean that we should let these stronger individuals devour the more vulnerable. If humans have brains and hearts and can create a system whereby something akin to fairness can be created, then this should be attempted. It’s true that death is inevitable. but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t develop medicine and practice it. If we see an older person being beaten on the street, we would all come to the aid of that person. This means there is a natural inclination to TRY to right wrongs, to TRY to create a more just and fair world.

      2. That’s a great way to look at it, Troy. It’s a pragmatic way for sure.

    2. Your comment is profound, as is this post.

      My contribution is that to strive for fair behaviors, to clearly point out unfairness, and to struggle to establish fair play are indeed the defining elements of civilization, and that when we protest against unfairness we are reminding one another of the basic human principles we were taught in school ~ that this Great Experiment in human governance is established to move us into a mellower maturity, as a species, than the self destructive adolescent phase we’ve clearly been working through for these past millennia.

  3. I don’t deal very calmly with the unfairness of life, even when it doesn’t affect me. I have lain on the couch and cried because life’s not fair and I didn’t even have a bad day at work. I don’t ask “why me?” though. I ask “why NOT me?” If it’s good enough for someone else then it’s good enough for me. I just can’t stand to see miscarries of justice. I’m a stickler for rules and everyone being treated the same way.

    1. I do not mean to demean anyone who seeks fairness and equal treatment in my post. I am just not so optimistic that we should deal in “oughts.” I prefer to deal in “what is” instead of what we should or what we ought to do. That’s just my opinion, though. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  4. So true! I’ve fallen into the “it’s not fair” trap more times than I care to admit. But ultimately, it’s not productive and keeps our focus on things we can’t control, instead of moving forward and improving. Now… if I can just remember what I typed here the next time I feel that sense of unfairness, I’ll be doing good. 🤔

    1. We all need a reminder once in a while. That’s why I wrote the article, mostly to remind myself. Thanks for sharing.

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