Is life fair?

This is the shortest question I have ever been asked on this site.  You didn’t even tell us your name! 

It might clarify something if we asked what our expectations are: what would human life be like if it was fair?  Nobody would ever experience injustice, no innocent person would ever suffer, no one’s reasonable expectations would ever be disappointed.  Clearly, life as we experience it is not fair.  Terrible things happen all the time - tragedy, disease, injustice, natural disasters, loss, and the final loss, death.  Someone said that if we cannot bear the sight of injustice we should keep to our room with the door closed and the curtains drawn.  Then he added, pointedly, that we should also throw away our mirror.  We ourselves are part of the world as it is, and our own books are not balanced.  The pain and inconvenience we caused our mothers, for example, even before we were born, is all entered against our account.  That debt grew and grew as we grew, and there is no sorting out what we owe the world.  Our decent instinct then is to pay back as much as we can, even if we have to take a few hits along the way. 

If you make a mess you have to clean it up: that was an early lesson in justice that we all had to learn as children.  Later on we learned the harder lesson that justice isn't always just.  Justice can turn very easily into vengeance, so it has to keep on defining its own limits with great precision.  Even so, it is always only partial and approximate.  When a criminal is jailed, that is justice; but is it just that his children should have to endure his absence from their lives because of his crimes?  His imprisonment is fair to the victim of his crime, but not to his own family, who are therefore victims too.  I think it is simpler to assume that life is full of injustice, and that we are here to mitigate it as far as we are able.  If we become obsessed with justice for ourselves we have no energy left for anything else.  A way of thinking becomes a way of life.  We leave no room for some of the greatest things in human life: forgiveness, endurance, tolerance, even fun.  The pursuit of “rights” – right in itself – can be wrong when we allow ourselves to look at nothing else: our life begins to look like an extended court case.  Let’s get out of that frame of mind.  You never hear athletes, for example, complaining that all their hard training is unfair. 

That's a short answer.  But then it was a short question.  That's fair!


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to