The Importance of Fairness

You were probably expecting me to write something about conscience, given that today we celebrate SS John Fisher and Thomas More, but I’ve already done that more than once and I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly written about fairness.

Fairness isn’t a spectacular quality. It doesn’t usually involve huge sacrifices or dramatic gestures. It isn’t listed as a virtue or lauded as a must-have quality, yet fairness and ‘fair play’ are immensely attractive, especially to those who are more vulnerable. It tacitly reasserts individual value, our worth as human beings despite the accidents of class or wealth or whatever arbitrary measurement society applies. To be fair is to try to enter into the thoughts and feelings of others, to seek compromise where compromise is possible, to have a care for justice, equity and the rest. It is one of the qualities the Rule of St Benedict mentions again and again in connection with the abbot: he is to do all things with prudence and fairness. It allows communities to flourish, as well as individuals.

We seem to be born with an innate sense of fairness — at least as it affects ourselves. How often does sibling rivalry lead to the cry, ‘It isn’t fair!’? We also see in childhood the positive aspects of fairness, with children instinctively sharing and being troubled if one has less than another. As we grow older, some of us keep that sense of fairness, others of us lose it or allow it to be overlain by self-interest. Fairness becomes a bit trickier, a bit less important in a world where ‘dog eats dog’ is the mantra of many supposedly successful people. We can even despise fairness as weakness.

I think John Fisher was a fair man, always ready to listen to others and consider their arguments. I don’t think Thomas More started out as a fair man — he was too much of his time to be ‘nice’ to heretics, for example, and the language of his controversies is distinctly unpleasant — but I think he became one. Neither wanted to be a martyr. Both tried to find ways of accommodating the king, but when they failed, they accepted the consequences with a courage most of us find heroic. If More was unfair to anyone in his last days, it was to his family, as Dame Alice complained. And that is the great problem with fairness. It comes at a price; but it is surely one we ought all to be willing to pay.