Jacet of Against Fairness by Stephen AsmaAgainst Fairness by Stephen Asma (University of Chicago Press)

Unusually for a book of this type, Stephen Asma’s Against Fairness includes lots of dinky little drawings by the author. Here is Gandhi. There a pack of wolves. Look, two crying babies. But rather than illuminating his various points they only leave the reader thinking that perhaps Asma should stick to doodling: constructing coherent philosophical arguments does not appear to be his métier.

As the title suggests, Asma rails against society’s preoccupation with fairness – he defines it as something “free from bias and prejudice” – at the expense of nepotism, favouritism and tribalism. He seeks to show how the latter have been unjustifiably demonised and how we would all be better off if we started engaging in such behaviour. Unfortunately, Asma, a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, doesn’t pull it off. When criticising the major philosophical theories on fairness he is so intellectually outgunned that it’s like witnessing Ralf Wiggum pick a fight with the Terminator.

For example, Peter Singer famously came up with the principle of equal consideration of interests for treating people fairly. Asma ignores the fact that Singer’s rather reasonable principle does not require equal treatment of all beings (as they have different interests they can be treated differently) and is under the illusion that the following amounts to a successful refutation: “I don’t look down from the top of the John Hancock building in Chicago, notice that everyone below looks like bugs, and then resolve to treat everyone like bugs ever after.” Well, naturally you don’t, but nor does Singer.

Things don’t improve when the book enters the realm of neuroscience. Asma believes that favouritism has its basis in our brain chemistry and that this “bring[s] us toward a more emotionally based, rather than rationally based, ethics.” He thinks that, because science can show that humans have a tendency towards favouritism, this means favouritism is a good thing. Such arguments, of course, fall foul of Hume’s idea that you cannot get an ought from an is: just because a person is, say, violent, that does not mean they ought to be violent.

Asma rejects the Humean view without giving sound justifications for doing so: it just does not feel right to him. Indeed, this is a running theme. He wants the world to be run according to his own pro-favouritism instincts but never explains why they should be favoured over the conflicting intuitions of others or why we should reject rationality.
Few believe all pro-fairness theories are above criticism, but Asma’s methods of attacking them – a mixture of gut feelings (“we know it in our bones”), cod-neuroscience, “iconoclastic” generalisations and breathless anecdotes about the superiority of all things Eastern – are not credible ways of resolving ethical disputes.

Overlooking the fact that many consider free markets to be fair, Asma paints anyone wanting a fair society as Dave Sparts who want to ban Valentine’s Day cards. Even the most gormless of sixth-formers will realise that he is creating straw men.