In this week’s spotlight I’d like to discuss the idea of fairness. What does it mean to be fair? Now most people are generally pretty certain they understand the difference between fair and unfair—that is, until you dig down into the grit. What do I mean by that?
There is an old story of a group of blind men and an elephant. As the story goes, when they encounter the elephant for the first time, they each touch a different part of the animal and come away with a different interpretation. According to the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, “Out of curiosity, they said: ‘We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.’ So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, ‘This being is like a thick snake.’ For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, he said, ‘the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.’ The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, ‘is a wall.’ Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating ‘the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.’”
The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true. In other words, truth often is colored by perspective and in just this same way, so can the idea of fairness be equally framed.
Imagine for example that you owned a business. You had worked hard for many years to grow your business and preserve its value for your sons and daughters. One day, along comes a person who informs you that they can triple your business earnings in no time whatsoever. However, they want a percentage of the increase in your earnings. If they fail, you owe them nothing. Would you agree? Most of us would.
So, let’s imagine a little more. Say this person grows your net earnings ten-fold. Are you happy about that—probably, right? However, realize that now this person is earning several times what anyone else in your company is earning—is that fair?
Jack, or more formally, John Francis Welch Jr., was an American business executive, chemical engineer, and writer. He was chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001. When he retired from GE, he received a severance payment of $417 million, the largest such payment in business history. Did he deserve that?
Well let’s see. In 1980, the year before Welch became CEO, GE recorded revenues of roughly $26.8 billion and in 2000, the year before he left, they were nearly $130 billion. By 1999 he was named Manager of the Century by Fortune magazine. Clearly his stockholders believed he was worth that.
So once again, do you think it was fair and if not, by what standard? That said, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is a slogan popularized by Karl Marx in 1875. The principle refers to free access to and distribution of goods, capital and services. In the Marxist view, such an arrangement would be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist system would be capable of producing; the idea is that, with the full development of socialism and unfettered productive forces, there will be enough to satisfy everyone’s needs.
Now, that might sound good, but how has worked out for those who tried it? England tried it after WWII, and Margaret Thatcher had this to say, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Moreover, is it fair to expect that those who work the hardest should be paid the same as those who work as little as necessary to get by, or those who fail to contribute to society in any way?
So once again, I ask you what is fair? Certainly, a level playing field for all is necessary if we’re going to have fairness, of that there is little doubt. But even there we can become confused because it seems our creator didn’t exactly create us all equal—at least from the perspective of our talents and opportunity. There are those who naturally excel in ways that give them a leg up, and of course, there are those Darwinian draw winners who come into wealthy families connected to power. Who’s to say that’s fair?
Life is much more complicated than some simpleton notion that the world should be fair. Fair in what way and to whom, where and when? As for me, where I strive to find fairness in all my dealings and with all whom I may interface, I am nevertheless aware that the best fairness comes in how we treat one another—not in who does what or who owns what. If fairness is important to you, I would encourage you to remember that it begins by treating everyone with respect. Indeed, the Golden Rule might just be the ultimate measurement of fairness: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and that goes for your business dealings as well.
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?
Thanks for the read,