And we’ll probably hear them discussed on that day so perhaps it makes sense to consider the connection among the three.
The three are fairness, justice, and equality. A denial of any of them tends to create imbalance, resentment and residue.
Of the three, for me, fairness is the most important and includes the other two within its meaning.
When I joined the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, my wife bought me a miniature scale of justice (similar to the illustration but smaller), which I kept in my office. Whenever I entered the hearing room to hear refugee claims, I would mentally place the scale between me and the claimant.
The message to myself was: Is this decision fair?
In the eight years I heard claims, I came to respect the criterion of fairness more than anything else in the world. I saw clearly how fairness was essential to having a world that worked and that fairness was a standard that almost no one argued with or, to put it another way, that was universally recognized and admired.
The scrupulously fair person, in my view, receives the keys to the kingdom. Their word becomes law in the universe, not like the fair person seeks that outcome. Somehow to be fair leads to not seeking them. And equally mysteriously it often ends up with receiving them.
Most people wish to cooperate with the fair person. Their place in society is secure without them needing to master numerous other skills. Mastering fairness outweighs mastering many other skills.
Justice for me is nothing more than adjusting things to make them fair. In eight years of looking at the matter, I could not find a distinction between justice and fairness.
And equality is a rough cut which fairness renders exact. Sometimes equality of task or responsibility is not fair, as with a disabled person. To assign him or her an equal role to that of a non-disabled person may be equal but not fair. It may not take the disability into account, which fairness would require. Similarly between men and women, biology dictates different roles at times and these lead to situations where equality may not apply but fairness will.
Affirmative action does not promote equality in the short run but does promote fairness. Equality is a subset of fairness. Fairness takes more variables into account than simple equality does.
Fairness is also for me a higher value than equality. That’s something I also returned to again and again in the course of eight years of making human-rights decisions. In many circumstances, equality was not always advisable but fairness always was.
It isn’t easy to be scrupulously fair. It isn’t easy to decide what is absolutely fair. It cannot be easily legislated. And yet it seems to me the very backbone of wise interpretation of the law.
I’ve said a number of times that Gandhi put harmlessness ahead of truth because he knew that human beings could turn even “truth” into a weapon. By the same token, it’s well for me to learn fairness before love because, unfortunately, human beings can use even “love” as a manipulation. They who learn fairness before love build a solid foundation upon which to raise a superstructure of love.
I cannot conceive of love fleeing from fairness. And I cannot see any lack of compatibility between fairness and love.
In fact those who commit themselves to fairness by that act alone invite a major heart opening in themselves. And those who commit to following fairness throughout their lives find themselves on the path of love by that one decision alone.
Fairness is also the surest foundation for peace-making and peace-keeping. In my view, all knots and problems are capable of yielding to fairness.
The mere willingness to consider fairness above all else is somehow recognized and sometimes proves enough in itself to calm a situation. Even setting the two parties at loggerheads to seeking a fair solution has a calming effect.
If all we really needed to learn we learned in kindergarten, to quote Robert Fulghum, most of what we learned in kindergarten was fairness. Taking turns, sharing, and putting things back were all aspects of what he called “playing fair.” (1)
Fairness calms the mind and emotions. Fairness leads to dispassion and eventually brings serenity. If I had one quality that I could choose to have bestowed on me by a beneficent providence and only one, I would choose fairness above all others.
So now as we approach a day on which we reflect on the unfair treatment of women in the world, we could do ourselves no better service than to meditate on the practice of being fair, of restoring fairness to the world, of enshrining fairness in our codes of law and public practices.
(1) Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, at http://www.peace.ca/kindergarten.htm