Seldom does a philosophy professor threaten to commit murder. Repeatedly. In print. Meet Stephen T. Asma of Columbia College Chicago, author of Against Fairness, (gasp!) an academic work without a subhead (The University of Chicago Press, $22.50, November 19). A self-described “schlub” and “moderate liberal,” Asma also draws, fishes, plays slide guitar, lusts after his neighbor’s backyard, wants teachers to watch Toy Story, travels the third world, links Gandhi and Tony Soprano in a single sentence, brings up Buddha’s “bff,” and manages to semi-defend Rupert Murdoch between quoting Aristotle and taking a swipe at Angelina Jolie. His previous books have names like On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (2009) and Stuffed Animals and Pickleheads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (2003, both Oxford University Press). Above all, he’s a devoted dad who’d literally kill if it’d save his son from harm. We’ve never met, but I like the guy.
Asma, a “favoritist,” is confident in his controversial thesis — “My claim is that favoritism is natural for humans in the same way as breast feeding is natural;” “People are not equally entitled to my time, affection, resources, or moral duties,” favoritism “substantially increases human happiness” - but prepared for a backlash. Especially since he also endorses bias, tribalism, elitism, and “positive nepotism,” such as mentorship and immigrants helping their families adjust to the United States. The topics I expected to read about (Wall Street, campaign spending, unemployment) are bypassed, and affirmative action receives merely a mention, three-fourths into the 200 page book (Asma’s son is half Caucasian, half Chinese, and Asma has no qualms about identifying him on applications as whichever race seems most beneficiary).
Instead, Asma evinces our innate inclination toward favoritism with philosophical, biological and cultural proof that preferential treatment has always existed. Egalitarianism is not necessarily his enemy; Asma believes in “equality of opportunity,” although not “rules and policies that attempt to create an equality of outcomes.”
We’ve read so much about political correctness and oversensitivity, it’s amazing that fairness remains taboo. At its root, Asma’s inquiry is terribly basic: Why should we be fair in an unfair world? Maybe we shouldn’t put ourselves under that pressure; is acting on behalf of mankind worth slighting your friends and family? Nepotism is one of my biggest pet peeves, yet page by page, I began to wonder if nepotism is OK. And as terrible as jealousy is, Asma tells us to cut ourselves some slack - envy motivates.
This an an important book that could sell well. Just seeing the title Against Fairness on shelves will unnerve some and intrigue others in the same way as Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. (Side note: this might not be the best gift for your religious friends, primarily Christians. Chapter one is dubbed, “Even Jesus Had a Favorite;” later, Asma writes, “Christianity tells us: ‘God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son for us’? It may be pious and mystically beautiful to sacrifice your son for others, but it’s also transcendently bad parenting.” For the record, the author is a former Catholic who’s written multiple books on Buddhism).
Tons of hypothetical situations are posed to readers, and you can’t help tackling mental responses. Thus Against Fairness is basically impossible to skim through; it’s a short book, but a long read. Once I timed myself to see how many pages I read in an hour: 25, a total so depressing that I stopped keeping track.
To Asma’s detriment, the best and worst chapters follow one another (”But, Dad, That’s Not Fair!” and “The Circle of Favors: Global Perspectives”). In the former, weighty arguments are interspersed with kid-speak, and pop culture references inevitably flood the brain (”Boss of Me,” the Malcolm in the Middle theme song, ends with the lilting coda, “Life is unfair;” on season two of Louie, Louis C.K.’s TV daughter complains how unfair it is that her sister gets a mango popsicle). The closing of the aforementioned Toy Story example is particularly effective: “Thankfully, the film does not offer a disingenuous denouement in which the boy learns to love and treat all his toys equally. Instead, we find a mature ethical universe depicted, where the toys recognize their relative place in the boy’s heart…and flourish just fine within the hierarchical realities of favoritism.”
The next chapters detour into perspectives about fairness in other nations, but they stall when Asma turns to tribalism (from warring Rwandans, gays, feminists, etc). He even refers to “abstract tribes like ‘America;” that language bothered me because of how our Atlantic-crossing ancestors massacred the Native Americans. Midway through, the lighthearted tone shifts to pure scholarship. I took a lot of breaks while reading the second half, often returning to Asma’s dedication: “For my favorite. He knows who he is.”