The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, by Jacques-Louis DavidUp with nepotism and simony! Down with merit and blind justice!

TitleAgainst Fairness, by Stephen T. Asma

Date: January 7, 2013 (#2)

A title that cries out for explanation: Against “fairness”? May as well declare one’s implacable opposition to “nutrition” or “longevity”!

The inimitable Meghan Clyne of National Affairs, in her Wall Street Journal review:

Who could possibly argue against fairness?

Stephen Asma is willing to try. Contemporary society, he argues in “Against Fairness,” is obsessed with fairness, which he takes to mean a universal egalitarianism and its attendant ideologies and practices, including meritocracy, redistribution and utilitarian ethics. Our “hunger for equality” prohibits favoritism, Mr. Asma says, but this great leveling also razes the virtues that arise from favoritism—duty, honor, loyalty, compassion—leaving us with a shallow notion of the good.

The thesis is particularly jarring when one considers the author’s political milieu. A professor at Chicago’s Columbia College, Mr. Asma is to all appearances a man of the moderate Left, a movement whose objective since (at least) the Enlightenment has been the liberation of mankind from tribal preferences and playing favorites. More broadly, perhaps the only remaining dogma to which Left and Right jointly subscribe holds that men are born equal and must be rigorously, impartially, and bureaucratically sifted as equals striving on a level playing field.

Mr. Asma boldly disagrees with the near universal consensus. Our very biology commands us to favor kin and clan over strangers. Why shouldn’t I appoint my nephew as bishop if it lies in my power to do so? Who are we to disobey our primal emotions?  Mr. Asma’s thoughtful book draws upon anecdotes ancient and modern as well as scientific research to argue that favoritism, for all its apparent inefficiencies, makes us happy.

Mr. Asma’s model society is China, where (he argues somewhat unconvincingly) traditional mores do not question the mixing of business and pleasure, of power and family ties. (Pace, Red Guards.) Miss Clyne notes the apparent contradiction of relying on the Analects to advocate a return to our own tribal affinities.

She continues:

America does have its own cultural resources to deploy in restoring the values that have been eroded by our fairness culture: “Honor thy father and mother” is a powerful injunction to filial devotion. The problem is that Mr. Asma—who takes great pains to establish that he is a liberal in good standing—doesn’t want to draw on them. He is “not suggesting a conservative return to religious values.” Instead, he offers a new moral prescription: a favorites-based ethics built on purely emotional ties.

While freely acknowledging the excesses of overweening egalitarianism, this Superfluous Man is more hesitant to jettison “fairness” as such than Mr. Asma. Western civilization’s attachment to impartiality runs deeper than the green eyeshade rationalism of an Adam Smith or a Jeremy Bentham, and Miss Clyne is close to the mark when she makes reference to Scripture.

Nature may be red in tooth and claw, and Confucius may counsel filiopiety. But in no small measure, the boundaries of our Western tribe–the pre-rational mores that allow our civilization to cohere–are delimited by the principles of fairness, impartiality, and blind justice. These concepts may frequently be stated as rationalistic universals, but they are also the tribal norms that long ago distinguished Jerusalem from the Gentiles, Athens from the Persians, and Rome from the Visigoths. I would argue that Westerners do not arrive at “fairness” through ratiocination–we imbibe it with our mothers’ milk.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan, or better yet, Livy’s recounting of the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, the Roman consul who supervised the execution of his own two sons for their roles in the Tarquinian conspiracy:

After the royal property had been disposed of, the traitors were sentenced and executed. Their punishment created a great sensation owing to the fact that the consular office imposed upon a father the duty of inflicting punishment on his own children; he who ought not to have witnessed it was destined to be the one to see it duly carried out. Youths belonging to the noblest families were standing tied to the post, but all eyes were turned to the consul’s children, the others were unnoticed. Men did not grieve more for their punishment than for the crime which had incurred it – that they should have conceived the idea, in that year above all, of betraying to one, who had been a ruthless tyrant and was now an exile and an enemy, a newly liberated country, their father who had liberated it, the consulship which had originated in the Junian house, the senate, the plebs, all that Rome possessed of human or divine. The consuls took their seats, the lictors were told off to inflict the penalty; they scourged their bared backs with rods and then beheaded them. During the whole time, the father’s countenance betrayed his feelings, but the father’s stern resolution was still more apparent as he superintended the public execution.

Mr. Asma, no doubt, would argue that Brutus would have been entirely justified–and more importantly, far happier–had he arranged for his sons’ acquittal or escape. Brutus wept as his sons were bludgeoned to death, but something irrational–something tribal–tells me that Brutus found greater happiness in maintaining his “stern resolution” than in greasing the palms of his sons’ jailers.

Next: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes