The Fairness Principle


[“The Divine Comedy: The Opera” by Paolo Miccichè and Antonio Mastromattei*


In 1302, poet and politician Dante Alighieri was exiled from Firenze, where he served as one of six priors governing the city. Dante’s political activities, including the banishing of several rivals, led to his own banishment. What goes around comes around?

The Divine Comedy was his decade-plus journey and work. You may have heard of Alighieri's magnificent opus in 100 chapters or canti. Would he had written it, had he not been a virtual wanderer, seeking protection for his family in town after town? 

What resonated with me the most, having studied very closely each verse of his work for more than five years, was a specific passage. Dante passes through the Gate of Hell, on which is inscribed the famous phrase, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Before entering Inferno proper, Dante and his guide Virgil pass by a group of people. They're the Opportunists: people who sat on the fence. They never had their own ideas or beliefs. But sided with the strongest.

Virgil tells Dante not to worry about them, as they're without infamy and without praise. We rarely understand the full impact of our decisions (or lack of).


Meritocracy and opportunism

“You can be anything you want to.” “You can make it if you try.” These exhortations are so ingrained in American culture that it's hard to see them for what they really are: slogans to promote opportunism. If you make it, you answer no one.

Meritocracy has replaced aristocracy. But, according to Michael Sandel, instead of the recognition that the aristocrat’s fortunes are a function of the luck of their birth, and not a judgment of their moral worth, in a meritocracy, one’s station is explicitly a judge of one’s worth. One’s success or failure is not about luck, but a manifestation of one’s value as a human.

New technologies are fully vested in this mental model. “Anyone can make it online.” If you don't make it, it's your fault. This belief has transferred to hiring practices. The unlucky are at fault. Hence a thriving industry to help you fix the optics. When it's the approach that needs scrutiny

In this context, communication looks more like ritual than transmission. Though the ritual view of communication is a minor thread, it's the older of the two. Ritual communication links to terms like sharing, participation, association, fellowship, and the possession of a common faith. 

Our common faith in the principle of fairness is based on a faulty assumption.


The elusive concept of truth

Is truth knowable? Historian Alessandro Barbero believes that truth exists. It's very complex and difficult to discover. But it's possible to ascertain it. In a conversation with fellow historian Alessandro Vinoli, Barbero says it's important to know your sources.

The role of history has changed over time. Herodotus and Thucydides were worried about the most important things. Something that happened to entire populations was worthy of mention. Hence the early recordings included only what was memorable.

After Marc Bloch, historians started viewing their discipline more like a science. Barbero defined it as the science of humankind in time. To discover something that happened in the past takes some digging. Therefore, the first question you should ask of any statement is “how do you know?”

Truth has value. But it's not an obvious concept. We live in an age when many seem to think truth is not worth much. Harry G. Frankfurt says publicists and politicians are among those “with a cavalier attitude toward truth.”

More worrisome is that best-selling authors and prize-winning journalists have also joined the ranks of “the shameless antagonists of common sense.”


Understanding what has meaning

In On Dialogue, physicist David Bohm explains that discovering the truth is part of the process of thinking and talking about what has meaning to us. When we share no meaning, we cannot connect. So the way to get to connection is through conversation and making sense of things together.

Says Bohm, “in science, or anywhere, you usually have to go through a period where you're not getting anywhere while you're exploring.” But if we share our frustrations along with the discoveries we make and thoughts and assumptions we form around what we find, then we have a good starting point.

This makes sense. Understanding what has meaning satisfies a human need. Yet, our sense making often takes second seat to our beliefs. Take for example work culture. Theoretically, work satisfies a human need to act purposefully.

But as Jill Lepore points out, meaningful work is the luxury of the few. That's where all the wealth went. Work ethic has become an ideological commitment thanks to repeated action. The need to prove yourself worthy in a capitalistic society has shaped this belief system.

When you put a dollar sign on everything, you overlook renewable sources of value: like intellect and social capital. This creates a distortion of the human need to understand cause and effect. The effect has become the cause.


We need to handle truth less like engineers and more like poets

Greek philosophers understood the meaning-truth connection. Plato: “And isn't it a bad thing to be deceived about the truth, and a good thing to know what the truth is? For I assume that by knowing the truth you mean knowing things as they really are.”

Yet, how do we reconcile this belief with mythology? Jinal Shah outlines some of the more problematic issues: consent and power-play, the portrayal of beauty, and twisted feminism. Myths are stories, and as such they follow a different path than facts.

In fact, they require historical context for understanding. Thus they need careful handling through dialogue. Conversation is a powerful tool to make sense of things and discover the truth. Depth can provide more meaningful interpretations.

Greg Satell says we’ve been trained to think like engineers. We identify problems to be solved, reduce those problems to a limited set of variables, develop metrics to evaluate those variables and develop a solution that is optimized for those metrics.

This method for creating solutions often hinges on assumptions. But we're used to thinking this way. Belief is a rudimentary need of the human mind. Neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar says# belief enables a person [to] function properly in daily life, without worrying about the true nature of reality, as the brain is incapable of comprehending the actual Reality.”

The purpose of belief is self-preservation. That's how we get through our daily struggles. And we're ready to believe anything, if we want something bad enough. Like meritocracy. This makes belief big business.

But we miss the essence of the fairness principle. We rarely fully understand the consequences of how our beliefs impact reality. Cause and effect in our world are non necessarily operating in the assumed order.

That's why we need to think less like engineers, and more like poets. Poets see, hear, smell, taste and feel, within the mind. In stunning moments of awareness, dreams, directed reveries, visions, and flashes of inspiration, they understand occurrences beyond their realness to appreciate their value as symbols.

Dante was both a politician and a poet. But the usefulness of this art is forgotten in contemporary society. We can do more to practice thinking, however. Practicing character traits could help us reframe how we see things. Investigating emotions could lead us to uncovering group influences.

Opportunity and opportunist share the same root. Isn't it ironic that this is how we discover opportunity may not equal fairness?


An example

Making fair decisions is harder than you think. Say you have a company the operates by lines of business. Each unit focuses on what it does best. Though all contribute to the overall company results, the day-to-day reality is most salient in people's mind.

In the absence of overall company cohesion and communication (viewed as transmission), that becomes reality. People learn how their unit is doing throughout the year. With the pandemic, or other exceptional circumstances, the company overall may do a little worse.

Even as your unit may have done great business, when bonus time comes, executives need to keep the reality of the company front and center. So you go to each team with the same message: “take one for the company.” Lower bonuses for the teams that did very well, a way to give back to the company. And to those teams that didn't do so well.

Seems fair, doesn't it? Say in the next year or down the line, the company does really well overall. Except for one team due to a change in regulatory environment. Still a force majeure situation. Will the overall company take one for that team? Or will their bonus reflect poor performance? 


* An Italian priest, Monsignor Marco Frisina, is the musician and composer who wrote the music and part of the opera’s libretto, setting the medieval poetry of The Divine Comedy to rock rhythms, Gregorian chants and Italian melodies.

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