‘It isn’t fair!’ How often do we hear that? As children, it was one of the chief complaints we hurled at adults. As adults, it is one of the chief complaints we hurl at politicians, corporations or anyone or anything we perceive as outraging our sense of justice and fair play. Or rather, at anyone or anything we perceive as not behaving as we think they should. There is a difference. By fairness we often mean equality and are surprised when the mismatch between the two leads to confusion.
In RB 34, which we read today, Benedict tackles the difficult question of distribution of goods in community. You might think he would say everyone should have the same; but he doesn’t. He adheres to the biblical notion of distribution according to need (cf. Acts 4.35). That immediately sets a cat among the monastic pigeons, because it implies that equality is less important than discerning and meeting the needs of individual members of the group. This apparent inequality is actually the way in which fairness is best served, for it ensures that no one has any legitimate cause to grumble.
I think we can apply this to several of the big questions being debated in Britain today. From bankers’ bonuses to gay marriage, a concentration on equality may blind us to larger questions. Fairness demands that we be just, irrespective of our personal opinions or preferences. It demands that we consider the needs of the group as well as of the individual. Above all, it demands that we be prepared to accept that others may see us as unfair even as we are trying our hardest to be fair. That’s not fair, of course, but isn’t that the point?