Fair versus equal

I spent the last many years of my life working for an organization that promoted and fought for state regulation for a particular profession. In my previous post about relationship versus right, I mentioned that from an ideological standpoint, I believe regulation is not a good thing; however, I am also aware that realistically some regulation is required. I was very sympathetic to the mission behind the organization I worked for, but more importantly, to the people — mostly the volunteers that were affected most. I never was 100% sure I agreed with the mission, but I could go in and fight for it 100% because I understood it, knew why the fight was there, and could completely see the argument for it.  I wasn’t being right about my belief that regulation is bad, I was being in relationship with the people who believed that it was good. Ultimately there were things about it that just made sense.

I learned a lot in that job, but if there was nothing else I learned, the biggest life-changing lesson I got out of it was the difference between “fair” and “equal.” The examination required by the profession had to be fair for all test takers — it didn’t have to be equal. The pregnant woman gets to eat a granola bar because she is eating for two — that doesn’t mean everyone should be able to eat a snack. It IS fair, it just is NOT equal.

My younger son wants the same amount of food as my teenager because it otherwise it not fair — no, it IS fair that the teenager gets more, it just is NOT equal. And when I serve both of them the same breakfast — two eggs and one piece of toast — I am being equal, but not necessarily fair.

As a father of two very stubborn boys, I hear it all the time. “THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!” But the trap we fall into is we say “life isn’t always fair” as our response, rather than “this situation is fair, it just isn’t equal.” I believe the response we give is what becomes problematic later on when the child becomes an adult — the adult then misguidedly fights for fair rights and is unhappy because s/he is getting the short end of the stick or believes others are — whereas the response we should give — and the response I have given ever since I learned it at my previous job — would in the end make a positive difference in the future adult’s life, as well as a difference in the whole culture.

We can’t always make things equal, but we can generally make things fair.

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