The Quest for Fairness

Stephen Sniderman


One crucial element that all competitive play shares is the ideal of fairness, but when we look closely at how we compensate for unfair advantages, we find no consistency. For example, the World Cup pits tiny, poverty-stricken nations against massive, wealthy behemoths, and nobody expects special consideration for the weaker side, yet in sanctioned competition from junior high to the pros, we often "protect" the presumably weaker players. For example, we almost never let adults in their prime play against children or senior citizens, and we rarely allow men and women to compete against each other at any level. Despite these and other inconsistencies, however, our best resource for understanding fairness in our culture is games and sports. When play does not involve winning and losing, fairness is irrelevant. And more serious types of competition, like politics, business, and war, do not allow us the luxury of worrying about fair play. Ideally, a careful analysis of games and sports would enable us to see why some competitive activities gives weaker players or teams a "head start" and others do not. Unfortunately, no current theory explains all the variations we find, but we can still gain valuable insights into the nature of social and political justice by paying close attention to systems of competitive play.