Justice, Fairness, and Happiness

The relationship between justice, fairness, and happiness is a challenging one. Many (most?) of us have a highly developed radar for who deserves what, especially when we might be getting the short end of the stick. Further, there is a general believe amongst moral philosophers that it is good and just that people receive what they deserve. At the same time, I think most of us can think of a time when a preoccupation with fairness or justice has ultimately resulted in a great deal of misery for ourselves, even if we were successful in enforcing our beliefs. The puzzle I therefore want to talk about today is the effect that dwelling on perceived injustice or unfairness can have upon us.

Almost by definition most of us agree that it is good for people to receive what they deserve: refuting this almost necessarily requires attacking the very notion of desert itself. In my experience, however, actually getting involved in the nitty gritty of trying to make other people receive what they deserve usually just results in pain and frustration, unless you happen to be in a position of authority. There are some parallels to be drawn to the language of economics, I think. When you are in positive relation to some other individual, the interaction seems to be somewhat like the Aristotelian friendship: each person does well by the other without worrying about each person’s fair share. The justice mentality, however, is one that keeps score. Imbalances can easily become an obsession: an itch at the back of your mind that the other person is either taking advantage of you or the jealous conviction that they are receiving more than they deserve. Much popular wisdom holds that there is little to be gained by dwelling on fairness or justice: to do so is to dwell on the other, and this usually stymies, rather than encourages, an individual’s personal flourishing. I would not claim this as a universal description – a certain concern for fairness and justice is important for preventing others from taking advantage of you. In our daily routine, however, a passion for fairness more often seems to result in unmet expectations and unsolvable arguments – for what argument on fairness is ever resolved with one side agreeing that they have received more than their fare share, or that they were in the wrong?

So the puzzle is this: we generally agree that it is good for the world to be fair and just, but actually policing this fairness in our every day lives can be quite harmful to ourselves. What are we to make of this? The first thing that I think is that a fair or just world may be better than an unjust or unfair world, all else being equal, but unfortunately trying to bring about fairness in the world does not come without cost. Fairness and justice can have high interpersonal costs, not even bringing up the issue of how one actually knows that one is in the right. The second thing that comes to my mind is that the kind of inequities that we encounter with our peers is usually not holistic – we focus on very specific aspects of inequality. However, I am inclined to argue that a world in which we are completely equal is one that might not be worth living in. That being said, persistent unfairness or injustice may be such that they just make certain relationships untenable – if someone never does their fair share of the work in a flat, for example, once the fairness awareness has been triggered conflict may be inevitable.

Let me know what you think!

Thank you,


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Narrative and Truth (and the return of CreativePhilo)

Hello everyone, CreativePhilo is back! I have finished my masters degree and am now going to be updating the blog on a weekly basis.

For my first post back, I am going to be talking about narrative, an extremely pertinent topic considering the upcoming Canadian election (since I am sure all of my readers are following the Canadian election with bated breath).

What is the relation between narrative and truth? The naive reaction to this question, I think, is to say that narrative pertains to story while truth is, well, the truth, what actually is. Stories may or may not align with the truth at the speakers whim or knowledge. However, contra the naive line of reasoning, I would argue that many ‘facts’ of human life are narrative dependent, in the sense that without narrative certain crucial facts about reality do not exist. For so often the way that we explain or interpret an event is crucial to the actual nature of the event itself. For example, when friends have an argument, often the resolution entails imposing some kind of theory upon the events. Now, the scenario is much more complicated when we are dealing with conflicting narratives, so I will be setting that thorny (though central issue) aside for the purposes of this example. Often the resolution of a dispute involves both sides agreeing on a story or narrative of what actually happened. Both might agree that they were just having a bad day, or that one of them was rude because of lack of sleep, or that the other had just not realized how much they were asking. In this way the dispute can be resolved: the narrative tells them who owes who, what went wrong, and provides a heuristic to avoid such disputes in the future. There are usually many theories that can be applied and many ways that an event can be understood, but the reality of the matter does not solely exist in the configuration of atoms: narrative language plays a constitutive roll in the nature of the event.

This, of course, does not answer the question of whether there are true or false narratives, but only points out that the problem is not solved by turning to the natural sciences. The issue with true or false narratives is though false narratives seem easily definable (at least in theory), it is much more difficult to define a true narrative. False narratives seem easily identifiable in that there can be explanations for events which just seem false, or to focus on incorrect features of an event. For example, a child may say that her invisible friend made her commit an act, and she may even believe that to be the case, but it still seems to be ultimately false. True narratives are more complicated because a single event seems to allow for multiple true narratives. For example, if someone is asked to say who they are, they can focus on a plurality of features in their own past to define their identity. Whether there is a ‘true’ narrative is difficult to discern.

The real meat of the issue though comes when we examine how narratives create facts. For narratives have a reflexive affect: when we describe an event we look at it differently, but the way that we look at an event is an important constitutive feature. For example, a newscaster or politician may say that healthcare is the defining issue of an election. This is partially an epistemic claim about what people currently care about, but it can also serve to draw attention to healthcare, to try to make the election about healthcare.

In this initial investigation I have mostly raised questions, but I will revisit the topic.
Please let me know what you think,


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