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“Life’s not fair.” Discuss.

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 17, 2009

As someone who works in Schools – and many of them primary schools – I often come across teachers who explicitly teach the children the following well-worn lesson: “life is not fair.” I wonder whether it is fair to tell the children that this is how the world is. Preparing children for an uncertain world is one thing, instilling cynicism is quite another.

One of the philosophy sessions I do with primary school children is an exploration of the nature of fairness – a topic very close to any child’s heart, and one of the first things the children will say, if you ask them what we mean by ‘fair’, is that fair is ‘getting what you want’. However, it is not long before they start to see how this conception conflicts with other conceptions that they offer, such as, ‘fair is equal share’ or ‘equal treatment’ or ‘fair is’ based on ‘who needs it most’. It is a very important insight for the children to realise that there are often greater demands on conceptions of fairness than desire-satisfaction.

On the occasions when I have had an opportunity to discuss with a teacher why they feel they need to teach the children that ‘life’s not fair,’ they have often responded with words to the effect that ‘in life, you can’t always get what you want and the sooner they learn this the better.’ But, as you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, I think this response – and therefore, the lesson the children are going away with – is premised on a misconception of fairness, the very misconception the children begin with but quickly realise the limitations of.

So, it seems that many people believe that life is not fair because you can’t always get what you want. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume said that there would be no need for justice in a world where everyone got what they wanted, and this suggests the opposite of the common view: that fairness is invoked precisely because ‘you can’t always get what you want’ (to quote the Rolling Stones). Politics, which is largely concerned with ideas of fairness in one way or another, is needed for the very reason that there are many people with conflicting interests and there is only a limited amount of resources, so, deciding ‘who gets what’ and ‘why’ is where the idea of fairness comes into being.

But, here, I will hand this question over to you: is the lesson that ‘life’s not fair’ a valuable lesson that all children need to learn?  


5 Responses to ““Life’s not fair.” Discuss.”

  1. Jacqueline said

    I think it is absolutely an important lesson for children, but not necessarily ‘life’s not fair’, but more that there is injustice in the world. And rather than teaching children to accept that ‘life’s not fair’, we should teach that when we see injustice we should try to do something to help or change the situation. This will give children ownership and responsibility for problems that arise and empower them to use the moral code we give them to implement change or at least voice their concern to whom ever may have the power to change it.

  2. thephilosophyshop said

    A very good point. There is injustice in the world and maybe that is what people mean when they say “life’s not fair,” but there are also ways of responding to injustice that attempt to redress this, as you have suggested. Simply telling children that life’s not fair does not inform or encourage them to respond in a healthy way. There are things that can be done when injustice occurs. If, when children see injustice, they simply respond with, “well, life’s not fair,” and feel no obligation to help – when they could do something – I don’t see how this could lead to a healthy situation for society.

  3. Martin Hargreaves said

    I don’t use it, partly because it’s shady what “lid” is – this sort of statement personifies, well what? “Life” is fair, but what about life? Bad things happening to good people might be an example, but is this “life”s fault? It’s easy to see how we get to gods from “Life” I think.

    Also, I’m not sure that kids especially need to be told – outside of kids TV it’s fairly obvious that life is fairly random, and people live by different ideas or right, wrong, fair, etc.

    What do you think?

  4. […] in regard to the question up there? It was posted on their blog a while ago, you can read about it here. I think that life is not fair because unjust situations are deliberately created, or allowed to […]

  5. thephilosophyshop said

    Read the link in comment no.4 from Permitted Flavourings. Very interesting because it begins by making disparaging comments about the activity of philosophy and then goes on to do some philosophy; it then realises that doing philosophy is hard and difficult to answer (see the comment at the beginning) and then gives up: That’s philosophy! It is following the Platonic pattern of 1) thinking you know the answer 2) realising that you don’t know the answer and 3) reaching aporia (perplexity)

    …Then you know you’ve been stung by the sting-ray (Socrates). For more on this see Plato’s Meno.

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