Conflicting demands for fairness are popping up everywhere these days. This week the Ontario Government led by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals mandated that students be allowed to form Gay-Straight Alliances in public and Catholic schools. While Catholic teachers supported the legislation, church leaders and the Campaign Life Coalition call it an attack on religious freedom. However, Anglican Curate Rachel Kessler says Christians may go too far protecting their rights, pointing out what Jesus did. Paradoxically, I agree with Kessler according to an atheist rationale, and extend her concern more widely across society.
The same conflict (one person’s rights versus another’s) led to a divergent outcome when North Carolina voted to add a same-sex marriage ban to the state constitution. However, the question of who is more entitled arises everywhere. It bears various implications in the international debt crisis, Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and denial of climate change. Everyone wants a better world, but what happens when we live beyond our means? More specifically, how can I rationalize my expectations at anyone else’s expense?
Life is inherently tragic. As a child animal lover, I learned that lesson watching Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom in the 1970s. The universe has no idea of fairness. Everything dies, fair enough. We all survive at the expense of other organisms, only to perish in the course of time. Often the dying is ugly, but sometimes survival seems worse than dying. Facing our fear of all this meaningless suffering is one of the hardest things about being endowed with reason.
Fortunately life can also be beautiful. As intelligent animals we became adept at finding purpose out of nothing. Knowing happiness is possible, we all want a fair shake at it.
Where does fairness fit in the universe? It is merely a human idea (but a good one) that my happiness and well-being should not occur at your expense. It has become embodied in the modern social contract of human rights. None of the world religions originally indentified this concept; it evolved in Renaissance Europe. Freedom is only an extension of rights, which always have limits. Capitalism has given our concept of rights a tone of unlimited wealth and abundance, but we should instead be informed by simplicity and sustainability. The world economy will not be fair and stable until we learn to live within the boundaries of our planet’s resources.
We’re bound for trouble when we focus on our rights and forget their purpose. They were conceived as an improvement over oppression for helping people live together peacefully. Rights do not assign privileges over other people, but give us each room to hammer out our own destinies. As soon as you start believing your dream is more meaningful then anyone else’s, we’re headed back to oppression. Then you can stop defending the social construct of rights and freedoms. Society will become essentially unfair.
Photo by Josef Grunig