Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Philosopher Defends Favoritism

Philosopher Steven T. Asma
Steven T. Asma has an interesting article on fairness versus favoritism at The Chronicle of Higher Education website. Favoritism, acting on behalf of our friends, neighbors, and kin, is a deeply rooted human instinct, Asma points out, and one that contradicts abstract ideas of fairness. “Ethical philosophies of every stripe – egalitarian, utilitarian, Rawlsian, cosmopolitan,” he writes, “have tried to level people with a grid of uniform impartiality, but our favorites cannot be encapsulated in the grid. They loom too large in our moral geography.”
One of the reasons this struck a note to me is that in my own research on educational policy, I have consistently found that the actions of parents undermine programs aimed at redistributing resources and opportunities to achieve uniform “fairness” in American schools. Even when parents sincerely believe that every student should have exactly the same benefits and opportunities, they do everything they can to maximize the opportunities of their own children. Since some families are better able to realize their goals than others, families promote inequality of opportunity. They are, Asma might say, devoted to favoritism. This, I think, is as it should be. Parents who don’t want to promote the best interests of their own children over goals of abstract equality are, to put it bluntly, bad parents.
Fairness should always be part of our decision-making and considerations of fairness should limit our tribalism. But putting the family member over the friend, the friend over the neighbor, and the neighbor over the stranger is valuing real social relations over abstractions; it is treating people as human beings with whom we have connections and not as interchangeable units in a system. So, it isn’t just that favoring our own over others is a fundamental part of our human nature, which contains evil as well as good. Favoritsm is, within limits, a positive virtue.
So, I am in substantial agreement with Asma. He does not ask an important question, though. Who will decide what is fair and when and whether we should favor some over others? The big problem with fairness today, it seems to me, is that it is so often coerced. Indeed, in the version of “justice as fairness” proposed by the philosopher John Rawls, the quest for the just society is a prescription for universal coercion.
As a side note, the motto of my university is “non sibi, sed suis” (“not for oneself, but for one’s own”). These days, this is always presented as an institutional affirmation of some sort of limitless altruism, but it sure sounds like tribalism to me.
A Call to Tribalism?

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