Fairness and Justice

I’ve been struggling a lot with the idea that “life isn’t fair.”  A true statement but I think only because we allow it to be.  “Life isn’t fair” in many regards represents to me how easily society surrenders to injustice, allows the truth to go unseen.  Society tells us to “move on” and that the effort spent thinking over unfairness is wasted.

But I tend to think that the seeking fairness is a valiant endeavor – it is why I am an advocate, it is why I look up to civil rights leaders and humanitarians who wouldn’t and won’t accept that life isn’t fair and who demand justice and accountability.

Too often we don’t ask for justice and we don’t require accountability for individual actions.  People are afraid to stand up.  We are afraid to tell ugly truths.  And those who do expose the truth are often denigrated while those maliciously act for their own gains regardless of the harm they may cause go unchecked.   It is unjust and unfair.

But we needn’t accept this status quo.


A Harvard study took on the concept of fairness and its evolution.  Previous studies using something called the Ultimatum Game in which two people bargain over how to split up a pot of money.   One person puts forth an offer as to how the money should be split and the other has the opportunity to accept or reject this offer.  If the offer is accepted, the money is split accordingly.  If the offer is rejected they are both left without any money.

Most people make offers of splitting the cash somewhere between 40% and 50% – showing that most people act fairly, or at least want others to see them acting in a fair way.  But generally if an offer is made below about 30% – an essentially unfair offer – it will be rejected by the other person more often than not.  And though it would be in the second person’s interest to accept any offer than reject it and get nothing, these studies reveal that people will give up money in the face of unfairness.  We prefer fairness.

But if we prefer fairness why do we allow unfairness?

Researchers at Harvard decided to build upon what we know from the Ultimatum Game to understand how this preference for fairness evolved.  Their findings suggested that “in a world that has a lot of uncertainty, it actually became optimal to be fair, and natural selection favored fairness.”  Through a series of computer games tracking strategies in playing the Ultimatum Game they found that “in a world where there’s uncertainty, when someone experiments with a fair strategy in a world of selfish people, they will still get a bad payoff, but sometimes just by chance that fair strategy might become more common in the population. And once it becomes common enough, the momentum switches and it’s better to be fair than selfish.”

In my reading, these findings show that we allow unfairness because in the short term it seems beneficial.  More importantly, these findings suggest that we needn’t accept the idiom “life isn’t fair.”  All it takes is one person to continue to do the fair thing.  At some point that person’s strategy will ignite a movement and society will change to recognize fairness and find that it is beneficial for all.

From fairness to justice.

Justice – the quality of being just, impartial, or fair; conformity to truth, fact, or reason.

We live in a society that extols justice.  We begin the Constitution by saying we wish to “establish justice” and go on to create an entire branch of our government in its name.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Yet, quite ironically, we do not demand justice in everyday life.

Abusers get away with abusing because there is no light shined on their actions.  Corruption subverts progress because we do not illuminate the truth.  Change doesn’t occur if we don’t address substantive underpinnings of problems that lay beneath the masks we wear to present a world that is okay.  In this way, society often waits until it is too late and someone gets irreversibly hurt, and in some circumstances people die.

We turn a blind eye.  We smile and nod in public as if things are okay so as not to cause a stir or look unprofessional.  But what if we didn’t.

Justice is not to seek retribution or vindication, at least not for me.  Justice and accountability are essential to change systems.  Systems are built on individuals, if we let each individual escape justice we not only allow them to continue causing harm but we grow a society of unjust individuals that cannot be sustained.  Take for instance our financial crises – we all know it didn’t happen overnight, it happened as we let one person and then another step on the back of others to gain money and power.  In the end we’ve all suffered.

Or consider an abuser – often they’ve been abusing one or multiple people for a very long time.  Some never escape the abuse and their lives are lost.  I am willing to be though that someone knew of the abusers actions beyond just the abused and they said nothing, demanded no justice until it was too late.  This isn’t fair or just – to allow individuals to suffer when we have the capability to stop the suffering.

An Invitation.

I didn’t write about this on my last post about my Walking Gallery jacket but now wish to point out that Regina Holliday painted the scales of justice on my back.  Interestingly she didn’t paint the symbol for “justice is blind” but went for the scales.  This image also happens to be the sign for Libra (which is my sign though I don’t much subscribe to astrology).  The image is a tribute to balance, fairness, equality.  I attempt to seek justice and fairness as an advocate for others for the wrongs done to them or to prevent harm from reaching other innocents.  Sadly, in doing so, in being true to myself, I have lost a lot.

Still, I will not abide by injustice at any level, whether individually perpetrated or systemically grown.  I will continue to pursue fairness knowing that one day I will not be alone in this endeavor.  It cannot be any other way, nor should it – we have a moral obligation not to allow life to be unfair or unjust.  For fairness and justice are the basis and end goals of all human rights.

I invite you to join me in the next few weeks, beginning anew, like a phoenix arising from the ashes of injustice to create a movement built on integrity, seeking lasting change.  I want your hands as part of the hundred hands reaching for a cataclysmic transformation in our society – disruptive and innovative.  Together perhaps we can find a new, better path to health as a human right.

Martin van der Grinten @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Martin van der Grinten


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