During a recent teaching experience in a newly-independent country of the former Soviet Union, a question about fairness sparked a revealing debate. The standard discourse about transformation from a communist/totalitarian system to a democratic/liberal one prioritizes the rule of law. Writing new laws by involving civil society is universally recognized as part of the process. But deeper values are involved that cannot be changed with the stroke of a pen.
The class began debating what should be done about a participant who had arrived late for the final exam. The first reaction was that there should be no debate; I was the teacher who had absolute authority. No debate was necessary. Following that premise, most of the group reiterated that I had said that everyone must be on time; no excuses would be accepted.
So the first part of the discussion was clear. The student had been warned that no one would be allowed to take the exam who arrived after the start. The authoritarian instructor had laid down the rule; there would be no exception.
Then I asked: “Is this fair?” The question puzzled the group. Why was I continuing the discussion? Fairness meant that everyone had to obey the rules that were given. End of discussion. Fairness was not a priority among the group, certainly not one for class discussion.
I persevered by pointing out that the student in question had not handed in a paper, admitting that she had difficulties with time management. For that, her final grade would reflect this omission. But she had admitted that she had “time-management” problems. That was obviously an attenuating circumstance. In the situation of the final exam, I pointed out, she would be punished because she had less time to write the exam than the others; her penalty was self-inflicted. (I did not mention that she had told me that she had had a catastrophe at home that morning. The class seemed oblivious to any form of sympathy.)
The debate began to intensify. A major subject in the course had been the distinction between a terrorist and a diplomat, the former being egotistical while the latter is empathetic. That led the discussion to whether or not an authoritarian position on my part was not only justified, but would it help group cohesion. After all, the class was together for almost all activities and would be together for more than one year. “Had anyone empathized with the student? Had anyone realized that she may have serious difficulties at home? Was it fair to arbitrarily exclude her given the circumstances?”
We did not have time to fully develop the concept of justice or fairness. At Harvard, Michael Sandel teaches a course on justice that is among the most popular courses at the university. Why is the course so popular? Could I ever imagine a course on justice being taught in the former Soviet Union? Perhaps, but if it was, it would probably only focus on the technicalities of the legal system, not on the concept of justice itself.
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice was published in 1971. It was a ground breaking work in political philosophy that raised issues of justice and fairness. According to Rawls, people should debate what would be just objectively, using what he termed a “veil of ignorance”. When I asked the class what they would want me to do to them if they were in a similar situation as the student who arrived late, their attitudes became quite different.
How do we in the West learn justice and fairness? Young children are not taught Rawls, nor are there formal classes in justice or fairness in most schools and universities. In fact, we are not taught justice or fairness; it is part of everyday life, including at home. Decisions are explained; arbitrariness is minimized. We learn to expect justice and fairness and are outraged when it doesn’t happen.
If children in the West often complain, “That’s not fair,” I wonder if in the former Soviet Union that often happens as well. Totalitarian systems are not open to debate or discussions about the reasons behind decisions. Totalitarianism is based on blind obedience to authority.
In their evaluations of the course, one student wrote: “Sometimes points of discussion were quite provocative. I had to make decisions for myself personally without blindly believing in what the instructor was saying.” If most of the class felt that way, then my experience was successful.