Stephen T. Asma in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Every parent has heard the f-word, fairness, intoned ad nauseam by their negotiating kids. My own son was an eloquent voice for egalitarianism, even before he could tie his shoes or tell time. Of course, it's not exactly universal equality that he and other kids are lobbying for, but something much more self-interested.
Kids learn early on that an honest declaration of “I'm not getting what I want” holds little persuasion for parents. So they quickly figure out how to mask their egocentric frustrations with the language of fairness. An appeal to an objective standard of fairness will at least buy some bargaining time for further negotiations. This is not entirely duplicitous on the part of the child, who is often legitimately confused and cannot easily distinguish his private sufferings from larger and clearer social imbalances.
Fairness, however, is not the be-all and end-all standard for justice, nor is it the best measure of our social lives. As a philosopher, I've noticed a tremendous amount of conceptual confusion in our use of fairness. And though we're hearing a lot of the language of fairness hurled around lately in political rhetoric, it often hinders real conversation and debate more than it helps. Most people, for example, assume that the opposite of fairness is selfishness, and since selfishness is manifestly terrible, no one but a hapless Ayn Rand devotee would be so foolish as to critique fairness. But the real opposite of fairness is favoritism—filial, tribal, nepotistic partiality—not egoistic selfishness. If that's true, then a lot of us—on the left and the right—are unwitting daily sinners against fairness. And that's not a bad thing.