October 04, 2013 3 min read

Maybe the word “fairness” should just be stricken from our vocabulary – if not the dictionary, at least banned in Washington. Fairness does not mean anything any more. This is my conclusion after years of trying to use it as one of the 8 Great Goods. In the end, I had to change the word to “equality.” 

Right now Republicans in Congress are eagerly trotting out the word fairness in their efforts to repeal Obamacare.  Fairness is a great word for politicians: it means a few very different things, so excellent to use when you don’t want to be pinned down to anything in particular. But what if you exchanged it for the word “equality?”  Is that what the Republicans are looking for?

Over the last six years, I interviewed and surveyed thousands of people in thirty cultures around the world to see if there was any commonality in what we all think of as “good” things.  Through the research, I came to believe that there are 8 Great Goods in the world: Life, Relationships, Belief, Individuality, Stability, Growth, Joy, and Equality.  Our decisions in life are trade-offs among these eight. During the first years of my research, I used the word Fairness instead of Equality. I always ran into troubles with it.

Fairness can be used as a rallying shout for both sides in almost any debate, because it often ends up meaning “fair to me.” But at the same time, the word sports a sheen of Equality—it is a great “high road” word that disguises what often can be selfish intents.  

Equality, meanwhile, is more exacting—easier to measure “equal” than it is “fair”—and Equality is clearly differentiated from the other Goods of Relationships, Stability, and Individuality.  I can be “fair” because I take care of my family or my neighbors—which is really Relationships.  I play “fair” when I follow the rules of law: Stability. Or I can plead for Fairness because I am looking out for myself: Individuality.

The way that Fairness is used in US politics is usually as a proxy for Individuality—our Greatest Good as a nation—so it is not surprising that we hear it a lot. Americans, more than any other group of people on earth, believe it is up to each one of us to make our own way in life—anything that stands in the way of that is “unfair.”

Equality is a more problematic concept in the US. Despite the fact that the most God-fearing among us truly believe “all men are created equal” is inspired phraseology in an inspired document, Equality is a word rarely invoked in the modern Republican party. Even Democrats use it with some trepidation for fear of being labeled as liberal—or even worse as socialist.

“That’s not fair” is a cry we all used to protect our self-interests as children—one that I’m increasingly convinced we should have left in childhood.  Now more than ever, it is time for a debate around Individuality vs Equality, because Fairness vs Fairness is a highly unproductive exercise.  It will result in stalemate—always.  It is unwinnable and unswayable. As voting, law-making adults we need a more precise and productive vocabulary. Without it, there is no hope for more precise and productive actions in Washington.

(photo: PatrickSeabird/flickr)