Different Rules

It seems that often I fall short,
My merits, very few:
And I could be much better in
The things I daily do.

You keep a constant tally where
I’m way behind, it’s true:
But you have different rules for me
Than those you have

For you

We are born, I think, to a sense of justice. How good it is, is another thing altogether.

Children are keenly aware of deviations from what they perceive as “fairness”. This is usually framed as some sort of equality: they deserve equal shares of food, toys, time, whatever. It is possible, of course, that they learn this from their parents or other children: when I say “born to a sense of justice” rather than “born with a sense of justice” I am simply saying I don’t know how we get it, just that we end up with one.

Justice and equality are different words for a reason, however. There is a fair amount of overlap in the concepts, but they are not the same. Let me see if I can illustrate.

Relationships between people have a couple of major dimensions*: intimacy (more or less close) and status (who is more or less in charge). Parents and children can be very close (high on the intimacy scale) but very unequal in terms of status (the parent is in charge). This is not normally perceived as “unfair” even though the relationships are “unequal”, at least in terms of status.

In everyday life, the owner of a house or a business establishment has more “status” (i.e., direct power to influence choices) than others may, in that domain, and that is not normally perceived, in itself, an unjust thing.

Cutting past definitional matters, then, we get to the frequent problem with people’s sense of justice: namely, that while we tend to be keenly aware of unfair advantages others may have, we are blissfully unaware of any unfair advantages we ourselves may enjoy. So justice becomes a very unbalanced and one-sided sort of thing.

The most obvious examples of that sort of thing are what are called “double standards”, when people have a series of rules that they expect others to live by, while they themselves do not. People with double-standards can fairly be called hypocrites.

I have known people in my life who, in their own eyes, have never done anything wrong. They can argue, hour upon hour, for why they were justified in acting in ways they condemn in others. In other words, they don’t support double-standards, they just argue they aren’t really doing them.

I’m a mathematician in real life. The odds of a person always being right in all disputed matters are infinitesimal. So if you think you are always right, you are, among other things, really bad at math.

But, I suppose, differences in mathematical ability are just one among many ways that life, itself, is unfair.

* This idea of relationships is derived from the work of Professor Deborah Tannen.

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4 Thoughts to “Different Rules

  1. I so want to use that line on my younger brother about him being bad at math. He is a constant source of declaring he is right (and annoyingly he virtually is all the time), although he has admitted that it is simply a confidence thing and that he does get the odd thing wrong. I’m glad that most of us grow up appreciating a sense of justice and are not judging others as hypocrites.

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