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The Ethics of Favouritism

June 13, 2013

‘People who are triggered to charitable acts share their good fortune with others. But it isn’t fairness that accomplishes this moral goal – it isn’t the pursuit of equality; it is kindness, good will, and, dare I say, a little bit of “favor”.

Stephen Asma in The Fortnightly Review:

asmaethfavtop3600FAIRNESS IS OUR national creed. But fairness unfairly dominates our culture, and crowds out the virtues of favoritism. Contrary to the simple-minded equation of nepotism and corruption, I submit that our kith and kin form a circle of tribal beneficence that is equally ethical but incompatible with reigning egalitarianism. If we embraced our filial biases, we could better exercise some disappearing virtues like loyalty. And the proof that this could be extrapolated out to the wider social ethic is evidenced by thousands of years of Chinese morality, which is premised on the preferential sentiments of family piety.

Many people will counter-argue my pro-nepotism position by suggesting that we need fairness (and a lot of it) because we instinctively play favorites. The excellent social theorist Barry Schwartz has challenged my view, with what I’ll call the “counter-weight argument.” He asks us to consider “the possibility that the only thing that keeps favoritism within reasonable bounds is precisely our commitment to fairness.  In other words, favoritism comes ‘naturally,’ but fairness does not.  Maybe it takes all of our will, rational justification, and ideological commitment to fairness to keep favoritism within bounds.  Were people to subscribe to [Asma’s] view, perhaps the center would not hold, and we would slowly but inexorably give in to the worst of our ‘us vs. them’ tendencies.” (…)

In our culture, we frequently use “fairness” when we mean other things (e.g., tolerance, generosity, etc.), and we criticize “favoritism” when we mean to criticize other things (e.g., corruption, prejudice, etc.). For example, what’s really at stake in the suggestion that we need a counter-weight to our natural tribalism is that we need ideological reminders to motivate us to help strangers. We need a “good Samaritan” trigger that pulls us out of our default nepotism. [More]

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