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On Fairness

Published May 2018 in Bilkent News.

We own it all. It is just to take and just to leave, because everything we take is ours on sight. This is how we seem to have come to think, which is bewildering: we own only what we are handed arbitrarily, what is assigned to us by virtue of birth, or achievement, or death and inheritance. When we look at what we make of guilt and justice, owning means nothing at all.


The common notion of ownership depends directly on control. We see this in the disowning of disobedient children: recognizing that we no longer control their acts and thoughts, we announce that they have passed beyond our ownership. Theft is the removal of the object of control from the influence of the previous owner; it may describe a great variety of infractions, ranging from eloping with a person’s daughter to pocketing their wallet. It also refers to the forcible removal of conceptual or societal valuables: rape is essentially an assault on the other person’s dignity, which is an entirely social concept; the reaction of a community to rape evinces its core values, its means of control over people who must stay together to fulfill a common aim. If the punishment centers around the loss of female virginity, the community has chosen the chastity of a female object as some sort of social currency, a representation of status or goodness that must be protected to conserve the social standing of the woman and all those associated with her; if the focus is on the brutality of the act, the community has likely espoused integrity of body as a virtue, seeking to punish violation rather than sexual interaction, prioritizing assault over lechery. In both situations, the victim and their family suffer the loss of socially and individually valuable possessions; there is no way to restore what has been stolen unless the community provides some recognized means of retribution, such as an honor killing.


Because people continue to assign the ownership of an item to the first person to claim it (or to obtain it in a socially recognized way, such as through purchase), theft is considered unlawful even though the thief controls the object he has taken. Appeals to the law do not heal social wounds; in communities that so prize honor and virtue, restitution is sought in familiar and independent ways, such as an assault on a rival faction in response to an insult that steals from the victim’s social power. The law does, however, act as a deterrent, and it attempts to provide emotional compensation by making the thief suffer in some manner, be it by a prison sentence or the loss of a limb, that equals the victim’s perceived grievance. It is interesting that if the accused pays the judge a certain sum to lighten his sentence, it is seen as a corrupt or unjust act, when he actually has himself satisfied the law by giving up a measure of his possessions sufficient to sway the opinion of a third party, and to match the loss of his victim. The problem with this sort of bribery is not that the victim is not paid directly, since no legal penalty has any benefit to the aggrieved other than some emotional satisfaction; the real problem is that the payment of a bribe is not as severe a deterrent as its alternatives could be. Common justice provides security and revenge; it does not try to be fair.


This is how things appear when looked at with a certain detachment. The reality of human life is different; people give up some ways of looking at things to be able to live in groups, where the safety and permanence of the social order is of paramount importance. The essence of social fairness is not retribution, but openness; it concerns the way in which one approaches others, how interactions proceed between individuals, because this is what makes a community what it is, and what drives personal and cultural development. Justice is born of the willingness to observe, neutrally, the acts and words of a person, and to use the data to better understand each new instance, to evaluate people based on who they are rather than on a strict set of personal principles. I think that this open sort of curiosity, the desire to become vulnerable and to invite vulnerability, is the nearest approximation of fairness; if applied correctly, carefully, it may be the only way to combat human arrogance.


I say this because if the sweetness of superiority is put aside for a moment, it quickly becomes clear that our species is not entitled to the lives or skins of any other just because it moved down a different evolutionary path. Here my original conception of justice becomes involved: instead of considering our mental capabilities justification for our natural atrocities, believing that our tools and thumbs give us the right to destroy whatever we please, we must move further down the conceptual road and realize that we cling to “ownership” because of an ancient drive to secure ourselves, to eat and drink and come to shelter before the next person does. This is an animal instinct, and a very understandable one, but the species we now harm due to our unchecked self-interest are in no way competition for our survival; we need not take what little they use. We can hurt them, but in fairness, looking with the naked eye, there is no reason to venture into their wilds, their lives, and even less reason to consider ourselves their masters as men, to so exploit any traveler meeker than we seem. The same social laws we use to protect weaker humans can easily be extended to the rest of the world, not because protection is a universal right, but because the eye of fairness begs us to do so, because we are no better or worse in our ocean of relative value than anything else on earth. We are neither masters nor heirs of nature, and need not pretend to carry power. The world cannot be owned, after all.

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