Sunday, November 18, 2012

Stephen T. Asma's "Against Fairness"

Stephen T. Asma is Distinguished Scholar and professor of philosophy in the Department of Humanities as well as Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science, and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of several books, including On Monsters, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, and Following Form and Function.

Asma applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Against Fairness, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Against Fairness is arbitrarily chosen, but it’s still somewhat indicative of the overall thesis. Our contemporary ideas of ethics revolve around the concept of fairness, but I argue that this is an unfortunate oversimplification of justice and the good life. Most of us are not daily engaged in writing constitutions or nation building directly, and so our ethical lives are more personal, biased, and fraught with competing loyalties. Even the egalitarian “saints” like Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi –who preached indiscriminate love –still had favorites or best friends whom they privileged.

On page 99, I’m discussing the way that other cultures and other eras think about ethics and justice without our familiar emphasis on fairness and equality. Traditional Chinese and Indian cultures, for example, are hierarchic and preferential, but I show how these more biased ethical paradigms foster positive virtues of loyalty and allegiance. Family devotion is the core of ethical life in these cultures, and the circle of favors is drawn tightly around kin. I contrast this kind of ethical favoritism with the universal egalitarian “world savers” of our own culture. I’ll take the favoritists any day.

Until we figure out how to incorporate our own natural nepotistic tendencies into Western liberalism, we will be forever doomed to fail our naïve ethical standards. So my book, which favors favoritism, is a start in that direction.
View the trailer for Against Fairness, and visit Stephen T. Asma's website.

--Marshal Zeringue