Sunday 15 January 2012

The conservation of fairness


A comment by Kristor at:

Everyone is unfairly rewarded, and punished, by the accidents of their births, and of their lives. 

The world is not fair. That’s just the way it is. 

Trying to make the world less unfair can only be accomplished by making it unfair in some other way.

There is conservation of fairness; it is a corollary of the conservation laws of physics.


This just strikes me as true. 


We can move fairness around but we cannot make the world more fair.

But we are not supposed to move fairness around - that is a meaning of the injunction not to 'judge'. 

Maybe fairness is like energy - it is conserved, it cannot be destroyed, but when fairness is deployed it is dissipated into slightly raising the background heat.


Perhaps when fairness is moved around it is dissipated into useless low level rhetoric, which can do no work. 


A society addicted to moving fairness around is perhaps depleting the system of its ability to achieve anything by means of justice. 

The fairness death of the universe...



Anonymous said...

Peter S. said...

As a minor correction, Kristor’s comment is actually at:

That aside, it strikes me that the very core of liberal sentiment turns on the issue of “fairness” or “equality” – if it makes any claim to a “first principle”, surely this is it. With that said, Dr. Charlton’s closing gesture to the “the fairness death of the universe...” actually suggests not so much a conservation principle as a maximization of system entropy. Kristor certainly has a point, however, as the historical outcome of revolutions and coups regularly demonstrates, that the set of privileged individuals is not so much abolished as replaced by another set, thus shifting “fairness” around. The general rule would seem to be that as one group is lifted up, another is brought low. (I am tempted to challenge Boland to attempt a Lagrangian formulation of Kristor’s notion, but will leave that to his discretion…)

Let me briefly take up and run with Dr. Charlton’s gesture toward “fairness death” – which strikes me as at least as interesting as Kristor’s notion – and propose that the core ideologically conceived outcome of liberalism is precisely the maximization of “fairness entropy” in the societal “system”. Viewed in these terms, the liberal single-focus on equality is not to be understood as something intrinsically and self-evidently positive, but rather something profoundly, even ultimately destructive of the system of society. It is, precisely, the undermining and destruction of societal structure and order, which may be taken in a near-direct analogous sense to the thermodynamic meaning of these terms.

Let me illustrate with the following image: Chartres Cathedral as it presently stands, and the same cathedral if the French Revolutionaries had succeeded in their plans to blow it up. Chartres as we know it is a masterpiece of carefully executed structure and order. The same, after the demolition fuse was lit, the smoke cleared and the rubble raked over, would highly fair – no stone lording it over another, all brought to the same level – and highly entropic. It would also be utterly ruined. Let me put the matter more incisively: order assumes hierarchy, and without order no good thing is possible; conversely, the destruction of hierarchy leads to the destruction of order and thus to the destruction of the good itself.

The liberal sentiment and presumption that hierarchy is an evil to be overcome would seem to be in error in two ways: first, that hierarchy is inescapable; second, that hierarchy is productive of societal good (while obviously being subject to the possibility of abuse – with rank comes responsibility). Let me render matters slightly more concrete with the following categories of hierarchy: natural hierarchy (some possess natural abilities greater than those of others, leading to superior achievement); functional hierarchy (some role pairings are functionally hierarchical by nature: parent-child, older sibling-younger sibling, teacher-student, …); organizational hierarchy (organizational structures are hierarchical both by nature and by requirement of efficiency); hierarchy of norms (some behaviors, practices and attitudes are superior to achieving a flourishing society – e.g. Charles Murray’s “founding virtues”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion).

The Crow said...

Funny: I was just going on about this, to my wife, over kippers, at breakfast.
"WTF is 'fair', anyway?" ...rant, rant...

Turns out that 'fair' is a leftist fantasy, that, like all their ideas, has no basis in reality, at all.
You can afford 'fairness' on a limited scale, when your empire covers 25% of the planet. If you're vigilant.
Other than that, it is comprehensively unaffordable, and to be avoided at all costs.

Kristor said...

Ah, I see you’ve unpacked the notion! And just as I had done, too. Or rather, just as I have begun to do. I just submitted a follow up comment over at Bonald’s (, in response to the skeptical reactions from The Man Who Was and tenkev, that much more explicitly draws the connection between fairness and thermodynamic order.

I think it is important to note that the conservation of fairness does not entail that we should just throw up our hands and forego attempts to rectify wrongs, the whole enterprise being in the end useless, any more than the fact that we are all going to die means we should just go ahead and die right now. It means, rather, that in seeking justice we must be efficient, and rational, and prudent, and wise. We must not try to fix just everything, because it can’t be done without contradiction (you can’t leave a floor-level window both locked and unlocked at the same time, so as to cover absolutely all the bases!). In a situation where triage is an inescapable requirement, one must exercise judgement.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter S - thanks - I fixed the link.

This idea which you and Kristor discuss in your comments seens right.

We use-up fairness in correcting un-fairness. And in fact we end up with less fairness overall.

This doesn't mean doing nothing about anything, but being aware of the trade off.


The abolition of slavery illustrates this. In the 19th century slavery was regarded as an intolerable unfairness/ injustice, and was abolished, and the cost of abolition was immense - weakening in many areas as it strengthened others, and introducing divisions into society which have never healed.

There is no point in pretending there was no down-side to abolition, there was a massive down side.

As I have often commented, modern societies are pretty much indifferent to slavery, which has come back throughout the world and within Western countries (as slavery will, it being spontaneoius to all settled societies, and therefore requiring continuous suppression).

Modern slavery is excused (re-labelled) by multi-culturalism and in general politically-correct self-hatred which are themselves products of abolitionism.

(I mean, they are lineally generated by the same forces as abolition - the 19th century New England abolitionist intellectual is the same person as the 21 century multiculturalist apologist for ethnic slavery.)

So abolition led to greater societal unfairness overall, including the resurgence of slavery - but this time in places where it had previously been abolished!

And this bad outcome happened because people denied or forgot the vast costs of abolition, and presented it as an unalloyed good - and falsely represented slavery as if it was racial and a recent invention of the West instead of being universal (until c1800 in a few places) and as old as agriculture.

Kristor said...

@ Peter S: Thanks for your insightful response. The notion of fairness death (or justice death, beauty death, &c.) is actually, like the notion of heat death, implicit in the conservation laws. Entropy follows from conservation quite directly; so much so that they are practically different ways of saying the same thing. If you have x amount of y in the universe, and that’s all the x you’ll ever have, and you’ll never have any less, then all you can do with x is rearrange it. You can’t create more x, and nor can you destroy any of it. But since no physical procedure can be effected without thermodynamic friction, there is no way to perform such rearrangements of x without using up some of the x – i.e., without dispersing it so that it is too diffuse ever to perform additional work.

@bgc: could you please say more about slavery? Or rather, about the equivalence of the 19th century abolitionist and the 21st century multiculturalist? I know that these two come from the same stream in our cultural history, but what I’m not sure of, based on what you have so far said, is what the slavery is that the modern multi-culti excuses?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor "what I’m not sure of, based on what you have so far said, is what the slavery is that the modern multi-culti excuses?"

The difficulty arises from the modern tendency to regard Southern US male field (manual labour) slavery as the model - so people assume slavery is of Africans, inter-racial, physically coercive and that the slave has no 'rights'.

In fact slavery is a spectrum, and house slaves (domestic servants - who needed to be trustworthy) and city slaves (who could escape) always were more kindly treated than rural field slaves on compound-like plantations (who were essentially used as manual labour 'machines' - the most obvious example is galley slaves who were simply 'motors').

Women slaves were better treated than men. There were many sexual slaves - especially mulattos (who were the highest priced slaves in the American South) - and I get the feeling that it was the immorality of sexual slavery which most deeply motivated the Northern abolitionists, over and above the brutally treated field slaves.

So the 'invisible' slaves among ethnic enclaves in the modern West are often female and same race, family members, and relatively kindly treated (so long as they do not attempt to escape, in which case the sanctions can be very harsh, up to and including death). Some are not difficult to observe on a daily basis although personal identity is often concealed.

(If slavery is built-into a culture deeply enough and is enforced with near total rigour, it becomes unnoticeable as such - when it is seen in the West with multi-culti spectacles; although it was obvious enogh to travellers of a few generations ago.)

Then there is the business of sexual 'trafficking' of various types, and the situation of mentally handicapped people.

In general, the policy among ethnic enclaves is 'don't ask don't tell' - what goes on in 'families' is pretty much unknown; and due to community solidarity and language barriers legally-admissable evidence (even of homicide) can very seldom be collected.

Samson J. said...

This just strikes me as true.

I cannot believe that you guys think this is true. And, I cannot believe some of the other things you are saying - like this:

But we are not supposed to move fairness around - that is a meaning of the injunction not to 'judge'.

Really? Maybe we need a definition of "fairness", and I would be open to a more detailed defense of this statement, but to me it sounds awfully like you are simply saying that we should never try to improve the world.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sampson J - "...we should never try to improve the world"

Modern culture has the assumption that every instance of 'unfairness' (loosely defined) should be 'improved'.

But the correct assumption should be that 'unfairness' should *only* be 'improved' either: 1. if the befenits significantly outweigh the inevitable costs and the 'improvement' is going to be effective. or 2. the unfairness is regarded as 'intolerable' - and this must be justified.

And in full knowledge that you are probably going to do harm to fairness overall while trying to remedy specific unfairness.

Samson J. said...

And in full knowledge that you are probably going to do harm to fairness overall while trying to remedy specific unfairness.

Well, I don't see that this is obviously true, and I still don't see how it relates to the command not to judge. But it's not an issue worth pursuing, I suppose.

Kristor said...

@ Samson J: I give a more detailed defense of the notion that fairness is conserved over at the thread at Bonald’s where I first tossed it off. I have two comments at the end of that thread that explain it a bit.

NB also, in re your inference from conservation of fairness to the bootlessness of moral action, and thus to the justification of moral inaction, what I say in a comment already posted to this present thread:

… conservation of fairness does not entail that we should just throw up our hands and forego attempts to rectify wrongs, the whole enterprise being in the end useless, any more than the fact that we are all going to die means we should just go ahead and die right now. It means, rather, that in seeking justice we must be efficient, and rational, and prudent, and wise. We must not try to fix just everything, because it can’t be done without contradiction (you can’t leave a floor-level window both locked and unlocked at the same time, so as to cover absolutely all the bases!). In a situation where triage is an inescapable requirement, one must exercise judgement.

Indeed, judgement *just is* triage, no?

There are a few other points that it might be useful for me to explicate.

There is conservation, not just of fairness, but of value in general. In any closed causal system, this must be so. You can’t increase the amount of value that a given state of affairs is capable in principle of expressing throughout its whole future, absent any exogenous inputs of value thereto. All that you can do is rearrange the value that is already implicit in it. And all such rearrangements use up a bit of the store of available value, dispersing it in such a way that, spread about indiscriminably, it can no longer exert any allure toward a particular terminus ad quem, or therefore motivate any work, any action theretoward.

But note that for any given moment in a causal order, the amount of value that it can express over its whole history may vary, depending on the decisions made in and as that moment. There is for a cosmos at its beginning an optimum amount of value that it can possibly realize over its history, provided it follows the optimum pathway forward from that beginning, without error. If it should ever err, then cosmic history would fall from its optimum path, and would forever thenceforth find itself unable to climb back thereto – again, absent any exogenous inputs. The value that a given causal order can express – can actualize – is quite path-dependent.

Once a cosmos has fallen a little bit, and cannot climb back up, it can of course fall still further. And, again, absent exogenous rescue, that is what must sooner or later eventually happen. For, once infect a world with error, and that error never thereafter goes away. It leaves its mark permanently in history, and queers everything after. To see this, think of a bowling alley where the distance to the pins is, like, 15 miles. The tiniest error at the beginning of a ball’s journey is going to land it in the gutter, sooner or later. No ball will ever reach the pins.

But even without exogenous rescue, a world may devolve to the general death of heat, and all other values, more quickly, or more slowly, again depending on the path it takes. The bowling ball may land in the gutter almost the moment it is released, or it may roll along beautifully for quite a while. In the latter case, more beauties will be realized than in the former. So, while there is no way to prevent the eventual utter exhaustion of all the available store of potential creaturely value present in the cosmos at its inception, that process of exhaustion may actualize more beauty, or less. The world is eventually doomed; in the meantime, it may be better, or worse.

Kristor said...

Thus even though it is true that in the long run we are all dead, it still makes sense to keep living until we do die – to maximize value in the short run, and the intermediate run. If we lie down and die right now, we lose all the fun we might have had, had we chosen instead to live. So, it makes sense to maximize value, and fairness, to the extent practicable. But in this we must be prudent, nor too ambitious. The poor are always with us. You can’t eliminate unfairness, any more than you can eliminate death (the only way to eliminate unfairness and death would be to eliminate creatures and their moral evaluations). And, because there is no free lunch, you have to recognize that if you ameliorate a problem in one department of life, you can do so only by allocating resources thereto that might have been allocated to some other problem, or to its continued prevention. You might by your action improve things a bit at the margin overall, but given Newton’s Third Law – which, like thermodynamics, follows directly from the conservation laws, which are in their turn merely restatements of the proposition that you can’t get something from nothing – it’s a dicey proposition.

I note here that the basic nisus of conservative public policy is to improve the general level of fairness in society *by undoing the ill-conceived and imprudent attempts to improve fairness,* that have been imposed upon us by utopian, Babelonian dreamers, and that make things more fair for a sort of people in one way by making them much more unfair for some sort of people in some other way. It is, in other words, to make the allocation of the available fairness more fair for everyone by making it more efficient; by wasting less of the available fairness on fussy schemes to improve fairness. The conservative says, “things would be much better for everyone, and much fairer even according to the liberal’s own point of view, if we had just not got started mucking about with them in the first place, but rather left them alone to sort themselves out.” Note here the difference between leaving things and men to sort themselves out, and stepping in to sort things out for them. The latter is tyranny, whether soft or hard; or as it is these days called, neo-conservatism.

The conservative urge seconds nature. For nature, operating as she does according to least-path criteria of action, seeks always to restore equilibrium by the path that least disturbs equilibria. Thus a situation of injustice – of disequilibrium – will inevitably encounter resistance from the rest of nature, as she exerts all her energies to correct it; and will if it is to be maintained call for prodigious investments of work, energy, value, fairness, to stave off or repair the erosion that the world will exert upon it. As virtue is its own reward, so evil is sooner or later its own undoing – for at its heart evil is a lie, a misprision about reality, and an attempt to repudiate it. But you can’t repudiate a fact; so, the wages of sin is death. This instability of evil, Whitehead says, is the morality of the universe. “So,” the conservative is wont to say, “leave things alone and most problems will correct themselves, if only via the devolution and death of the evil actors who engender them; act only where necessary.” I.e., be like nature. The Tao Te Ching beautifully expresses this minimalist approach to political economy.

Kristor said...

There is a hierarchy of fairness. From Johnny’s point of view, he was short-changed on the available cake, and the situation is grievously unfair. He is not wrong, exactly. But Johnny’s father, who cut the cake and served it to his kids, has a different, more comprehensive, and probably therefore more accurate point of view. And their Father in Heaven has the ultimately right, fair point of view. In the end, God’s Justice must prevail, however unfair it might seem to Johnny or his Dad, or Beelzebub. Willy nilly, balance will be restored, the true harmony established, and all divergences and errors burned away in the friction of that glorious engine (not machine, but engine: check the aetymology of the latter term).

So that, while there is conservation of value for all closed causal orders, we find that in the final analysis, there is no such thing as a wholly closed causal order. Causal orders cannot, after all, take their being at first from themselves. Nor likewise can they take the course of their eventuation, or of their eventual culmination and completion, from themselves. Eventuation does not eventuate itself. So while creaturely value is conserved, value itself, per se, sub specie aeternitatis, is not.

For any given world, then, real increase of fairness – which in any world can be possible only if there is real increase in the available store of creaturely value present in one or another of its states of affairs – is provided by repentant participation of its members in the Divine influx of value and being that maintains its existence in the first place. To the extent that a creature is bound by the terms of its own merely creaturely economy, exchange may realize more or less of the value potential to its economic situation, so that a free exchange may appear to create value out of nothing – as when I exchange one of my many dollars for a cup of delicious roborative coffee that I would otherwise wholly lack, with a man who has lots of coffee and wants more dollars instead. In such an exchange, both the parties thereto find their lot improved, and indeed this prospective improvement motivates the exchange. But note that while such an exchange appears to create value out of nothing, what it really does is realize potential values that were already implicit in the ontological situation, as the richness thereof, the capacity for work thereof (note the aetymological connection between “richness” and “rightness” – richness is essentially the capacity to bring about rightness). A real increase in the value available for realization by a creaturely economy (whether actually, or potentially) can derive only from a Divine input thereto.

Kristor said...

So, real increase of fairness in this world depends upon our openness to the Divine flux, that has created us in the first place, this very instant, and at every instant, and that wills for us our best, and that provides to us at every moment the means of grace, and the hope of glory. And, it is neither vain nor wicked to aspire for, or indeed to work toward, a real increase in the fairness of this world, provided we are careful to refrain from idolizing our own notions of fairness, in favor of God’s understanding of Justice. We may provide such an increase to the world by our acts of forgiveness and charity (or, as Charles Williams called them, exchange and substitution); by love, and renunciation of our otherwise perfectly proper and “fair” claims upon our fellow creatures, upon the whole system of worldly things, that cannot but cheat us, so far as we are concerned (for, we are in pain!). Indeed, renunciation of our own ‘claims’ upon the world is the surest way of opening room in our hearts, and in our acts, and in the world, for the flux of the Holy Spirit. We have each our part to play in the redemption of the world; else, it would be, not this world’s redemption, but the creation of some altogether different world, happening to other beings than ourselves, and not therefore a resurrection at all. But note that such redemptive acts on the part of creatures are possible to us only by virtue of a prior ordination of our beings and doings toward the Divine purpose for this world. They are not, properly, our own acts, except by adoption, but rather His, through us; the results of our several incantations of the Magnificat, of the virginal assent. When we forgive a moral debt to a fellow creature (NB: *all* moral debts are economic, and vice versa), it is by virtue of a magnanimity – a surfeit of ontological capacity – that we inherit from God.

None of this is to cheat the eschaton. This world will die, and will be redeemed, and resurrected from death. Nothing, however good (even the Atonement) can change this doom. An increase in the temporary fairness of this world, then – i.e., a real increase in its ontological potentialities for the realization of value – must ipso facto be a participation of this current state of affairs in the eschaton. The eschaton, then, is already proceeding, and the death of this very moment is an aspect thereof. How not? For, the Atonement and Redemption of the whole world, in all its eventuations, has already been accomplished. Indeed, it was accomplished, in the Divine Providence, from before all worlds. Even as we reckon time, it was finished two thousand years ago. So Heaven is already breaking out all over. That’s the only way there could be such things as saints, or miracles, or mystics. Or knowledge (whether of Plato, or Moses, or Philo), or virtue (whether of Samson, or Paul, or Horatio). Or a Church. Or beauty. All beauty is a foretaste of Heaven; but this just means that anything beautiful in this world is a salient of Heaven, and of this world’s final resurrection. The resurrection of our world is not confined to some time and place after its end and utterly elsewhere, but permeates and indeed includes the whole of it.

So, go ahead and improve things. Change the light bulb when it burns out. Invest. Insure. Work. Give. Forgive. Just don’t be stupid, or evil; and, do your best to consecrate your life to God, whatever befalls. Right?