Recently I read Stephen Asma’s book Against Fairness. Intrigued by the title, I hoped to get some ideas for explaining to my seven-year-old why life is not fair. While this need went unsatisfied, it caused me ponder the nature of fairness and how it relates to wisdom.
Fairness seems to be part of the American character. But as Asma points out, other cultures, in particular, many in Asia, favor family ties above all. Abandoning nepotism in favor of a stranger is shameful.
But if we dig below the surface, fairness flies in the face of another cherished American societal value: individualism.
The rabbi of my community is admired by all as a wise, humane man. Beset by requests for guidance, he could spend 25 hours a day dispensing advice. While under his tutelage, one day I questioned him about a particular issue in the Jewish dietary laws. His answer astounded me. He told me it depended on several factors:
- Who is asking the question? Specifically, where on life’s journey was the person? How extensive were her knowledge and expertise?
- To what spiritual level is the person aspiring? Is the person seeking to stretch herself and increase her level of observance?
- What day of the week and time of day was it? Was it late on a Friday close to the start of the Sabbath?
There were others but you get the idea.
This seemed consummately unfair. Essentially, as an aspiring rabbi, I would get a strict answer but someone less knowledgeable would be treated more leniently. The rules should be the rules. Of course, if everyone got the same answer, why do you need to speak to a human? A computer would be much more efficient and fair.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Each person is unique. So any question requires the context of that person’s specific situation in order to come up with the right answer. Similar to doing an act of kindness, insight into a person’s character and circumstances are necessary to find the proper solution to his challenges.
Such is the nature of wisdom. It requires knowledge and experience, but most importantly good judgment.
Inevitably, from the outside, it will appear inconsistent since when two people have the same issue, the solutions will in all likelihood be different.
I suspect you want to be dealt with in the context of your own life challenges, not those of society or other people. Not only is such a desire reasonable, it is the only way to support a realistic path of personal growth.
Would you rather be treated by a societal standard of fairness or as an individual?
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