Life Isn’t Fair

Vanilla Ice Cream Cone 8-6-09 3

Vanilla ice-cream. A perfect example of inequality in the world. But so, so tasty... Image by stevendepolo via Flickr

Life isn’t fair. It’s something I’m sure you’ve heard many times before. And let’s face it, many things aren’t fair. Why should one child be bought ice-creams by their parent and the other one left out because ‘ice-creams are for holidays’? Admittedly that one is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and comes directly from my own mournful childhood, but I’m sure you can add in your own scenarios, both imagined and real.

This isn’t just a light-hearted issue, though. In terms of national and international interests, it’s quite a biggie. Today children are being born in areas of desperate need, to mothers who may well go on to contract HIV/AIDS, with little access to fundamentals such as clean water, education, proper sustenance. Yet I, and probably you, sit here with access to plentiful supplies of food, beverages of an enormous variety, education that is so common that we dare to complain about it, and, on top of this, luxuries such as the internet and computers. When you think about it, it’s not hard to make those magic words come to your lips: “Life isn’t fair.”

The word for this, as I’m sure well-educated, civilised members of the world society like you know, is inequality, and it has become a bit of a buzzword. But the phrase itself is more than an admission of this inequality in the world. In its most common usage, it is a philosophy. I Think Therefore I Am. Free Will or Determinism. Life Isn’t Fair. It is a fundamental belief in the nature of the universe, a world view, te fire that casts the shadows of the world onto the dim cave wall that we stare at. Yes that was a Plato reference.

As a wannabe physicist, I should point out that it’s not a great conclusion to draw. The scientific process doesn’t back it up much. If we start with the observation that there seems to be a lot of inequality in the world, we may produce it as a hypothesis, but do the fundamental laws of the universe really cause the inequality we see around us? We should be able to test the hypothesis, and, while it is hard to do so empirically, there is some evidence that fairness doesn’t entirely enter into the equation. Take Einstein’s conclusion that light can curve in the presence of large amounts of gravity. This can be shown by looking at stars as the sun passes through the sky – they change position slightly as the sun acts as a massive lens, distorting our image. The problem here being that when the sun passes through the sky, we can’t see the stars at all. An example of life being unfair? Not at all – life provides an extremely convenient solution in the form of a complete solar eclipse.

But we cannot deny some aspects of inequality. My old Sunday School education does not let me down in reminding me that everyone is slightly different – just look at your fingerprints. And someone else’s for comparison. And we all have different abilities – I adore physics, but there are, apparently, people who feel the same passion for maths, politics, medicine, even modern foreign languages. It’s not hard to look around you and see that different people have different skills, and, as the bin men have shown numerous times while taking industrial action, even high arts and academic philosophy requires that there are people making sure that the basics are tended to.

But is this really inequality? We can point fingers and note that the man on the factory floor doesn’t earn nearly as much as the managers in the boardroom. But then, were we to perform a spot economics test, we might be able to hint at the reason. And would one of the managers be able to solder a three-eighths gripley to the double-tandem chasse joint? Do you have any idea what I just wrote there? I don’t. So we do have different skills.

There are, of course some problems. I suspect that if we looked at heritage in terms of socio-economic factors (by which of course, I mean asking if a person’s parents were poshos) we might see an interesting pattern when plotted against pay scales. But things can be done to alleviate that issue – good schools and mechanisms to prevent discrimination in terms of universities can play large parts in socio-economic progression. Equally, there are differing amounts of positive and negative stigma attached to different areas of the job market, many of which are not necessarily helpful. Indeed, almost all of which, except for the bankers. Everyone knows that bankers are evil.

So we need to work to ensure equality. Maybe this is a sign that inequality is fundamental law of nature, the fact that we need to perform work to combat it. However, that shouldn’t stop us from fighting it with all we have. Entropy, an important physics concept, is an idea that a system will eventually become more disordered and chaotic over time. But that doesn’t stop you tidying up once in a while does it? Just how we need to fight against chaos and disorder, so we need to fight unfairness and inequality. It is never enough to simply say that life isn’t fair – we need to know why, and ask ourselves if we should combat this. And I’m certain that we can fight it – and maybe even destroy it. Perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist, some sort of crazy liberal fool who believes that a country without gun rights can have a working democracy. But I’d like to think that it’s an ideal that’s worth working towards. Who knows? Maybe in a hundred years’ time, history teachers will be able to point at this date, and say that this is the year that the revolution for equality started.

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