What is fair? Definitions of “fairness” include adherence to rules or codes of conduct, or deciding issues without bias. Like any other concept, it requires reference to something else for its definition (such as the color blue being described as the color of the daytime sky). But how would we explain fairness (or “blue”) to a being who had no points of reference in common with us?
We act as if there is a Cosmic Standards Office which maintains an unchangeable set of rules and guidelines for us humans to follow. We can therefore switch to immediate outrage when societal rules are broken or flaunted, and yet we all rationalize our own infractions, be they small or large. We shout for justice, and hope that our own actions pass by unpunished.
God, of course, has traditionally been seen as the Chief Guardian of the laws of morality. And yet there is certainly just as much variance in moral behavior in God’s followers as in the general population. Whatever the power of faith, that power is most certainly limited or, at the least, diffuse in its ability to influence the world at large.
But what if there is no God to keep of the rules? No-one manning the phones at the Cosmic Standards Office? What does that mean for our idea of “fairness”? The believer in God would tell you that it means everything, for without God, there is no morality (and, in fact, according to more fundamentalist believers, no reason to be moral at all)! This is a rather dramatic view, I think, but I can understand that some would take it rather hard were God to be proven a false idea, and would therefore take everything that they had heretofore associated with that false God to be worthy of scorn.
Fairness, then, would become a meaningless, abandoned notion (to those holding such a view). But only because we have associated the idea of ethical behavior with God — as its ultimate source — in the first place. The advantage of an evolutionary view of life is that we can see morality for the evolved social system that it is, independent of the idea of God (except insofar as some of the codification of human morality has become an industry of religion).
If science is correct, and we have, in fact, evolved over millions of years from earlier life forms, then it is highly unlikely that there is a C.S.O. to back up any of our moral claims. And yet, morality exists, for we humans are most assuredly highly sensitive to behaviors that we see as “unfair”. The existence of social mores and codes is not mysterious to the scientifically minded. We are, after all, profoundly social animals, and we can observe versions of “our” moral behavior in other social animals, including our primate cousins.
We (naturally, I think) judge the social behavior of other animals by our own standards, always in reference to their difference from (or similarity to) our own. We wonder why the cheetah “cheats”, or the chimp “steals”. (But, then, we wonder why we humans cheat and steal and murder and lie)! And so we have had to add to “God the Lawgiver” “God the Ultimate Enforcer” who has, for his own reasons, left us to duke it out with each other until he finally steps in (at the “last days”) and invites all the good (moral) humans to move into his eternal gated community where the riffraff will be kept out with pointy barbs and eternal hellfire.
(Clearly, the immoral behavior of others of our own species really troubles us, otherwise, we would never have come up with such severe and lasting divine punishments for our enemies).
As I’ve said before, one of the most remarkable facts of the removal of God from the question of human morality is how little impact it really has on that morality. That’s because the major force keeping you and me in line is the social pressure from other humans, not divine punishment. Even the power of the police rests partly in the potential shame and public censure that would come from an arrest or conviction. Professional criminals and psychopathic individuals aren’t bothered by the embarrassments that terrify the rest of us. But as Giulia Sissa says (in”Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” — reviewed this blog), “Those that cannot blush do not belong to a community”.
And there is the thing: most of us do belong to a community, be it a family, a company, a church, a social organization, you name it. In fact, most of us belong to a number of such communities at the same time. And needing each other as much as we do (whether we like to admit it or not), we are constantly measuring our behavior, whether it be our words or actions, according to how much of our personal desire we can express and according to the potential for positive or negative feedback from our social groups (or partner). We have brains that are finely tuned to the slightest nuance in expression or tone from whoever we are engaging with. We burn a lot of calories keeping our place in the troop, as it were.
And fairness is one of those things that we appeal to in such situations. We want to be treated fairly (especially when we aren’t getting what we think is our due), and it’s often hard for us to give up that little bit extra we really wanted to keep for ourselves in order to be seen as being fair to others. But we all understand that exhibiting fairness is one of the lubricants to our social “rubbing along” together.
But the cold, hard reality that confronts us is that there is no fairness in the universe, except where we (and the other social animals) have put it in place. There is balance in nature, yes, but only as a result of natural forces tending toward a sort of active equilibrium, but this is far from our notion of fairness as it would exist in the mind of an all-knowing conscious (and heavenly) being.
This is hard for us to consider, having such a long history of assuming that God is behind everything. And though the idea that morality could even exist without God is unthinkable to many believers in God, the reality is that it does, in fact, exist. It exists because we exist.
This is not an example of making “man” out to be “God”. That’s just silly. For I am not elevating man to the status of the divine, I am simply eliminating the divine from the discussion as being irrelevant to the matter under discussion. And though humankind is not thereby exhalted to Heaven, we are, I think, lifted up a bit to a more proper place as author and keeper of our morality and ethics.
And let’s be honest: moral codes are a moving target. They change over time and are loaded with more exemptions than a corporate tax return. Morality is, in practice, a sort of averaging out of viewpoints that we all loosely ascribe to. It is constantly tested, affirmed by judges and juries, or altered by courts and shifting public opinion. (In this, it is similar to the “balances” we see in nature). All that religion does is mark a line in the sand that is nothing but an agreement to hold fast at some arbitrary date in history when such-and-such was worthy of a public flogging.
Does this make morality (and our sense of fairness) meaningless? Of course not. It makes it nothing other than what it has always been: the social codes supported by a particular society at a particular time.
The advantage of Humanism over religion is that Humanism recognizes that morality is our own affair, which then allows us to direct our energies toward using reason and evidence to make the rules as useful and beneficial to as many humans as possible. It removes the idea of God’s immovable goalposts (which were never really immovable), and replaces them with the recognition of the evolutionary nature of morality.
To be human is to be fair, and to be fair is to be human (or an ape or a whale or an elephant). We should give ourselves credit for introducing the idea into the universe, even though the universe is annoyingly incapable of appreciating this remarkable fact.