Fairness doesn’t enter into it

Saturday we adopted three kittens from the local animal shelter. But one died overnight. The other two got an emergency vet visit.

We were worried about the other two for the next few days, but they seemed fine. Then, yesterday, another one suddenly collapsed without much warning. We rushed her to the vet, but in a few hours she was dead. The third is now at the vet, and his prospects are not good.

My wife kept saying this was not fair. I kind of understand what she means. On the other hand, I also don’t. Fairness really doesn’t enter into it. That’s just the way things are. Little kittens die suddenly, leaving us emotional wrecks. In the scale of ugliness life can deliver, losing kittens you’ve just bonded with are pretty small, really. I confess, remarking on the fairness of life doesn’t even occur to me. Fairness of human arrangements is one thing—in my cynicism, I often don’t expect fairness, but I don’t have trouble making sense of a complaint that, say, some economic policy is unfair. But life in general? I just have to cope, even if this means for few days I will go around feeling like I’m suppressing a scream every moment of the day.

And the gods don’t enter into it either. If I had a more religious temperament, perhaps I could make more sense of complaining about the unfairness of the universe. I could curse the gods. But how could that possibly help? The universe doesn’t run according to my wishes. Even if I could take seriously the minute possibility that some supernatural agent was in charge, that wouldn’t change.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    When I was a kid and my mother would require something I didn't not want to do, I often remarked, "You're not fair." Her answer and mine when I became the mother, "I'm mom, I don't have to be fair."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    That sucks. My dog is getting old. He's my bestest friend in the world, and he's on his way out.

    I was talking about a wedding in another state we'll be attending next July, and then I said, "I wonder how much a kennel costs" and then I realized that I may very well not have a dog, or at least that dog, by next July.

    Love 'em while you've got 'em. You're not getting another chance to do it right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    I just heard that the third kitten also died.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    Sorry to hear that.

    I recently had a conversation with a Christian who said "Atheism offers no hope for ultimate justice." Well no shit. Why should anyone expect ultimate justice?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Sorry about the kitty.

    Ultimate justice? I think it is ultimate justice to have lived a good life, to have produced successful productive children and to have helped even one person in one's lifetime. That's enough for me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Interested said: Her answer and mine when I became the mother, "I'm mom, I don't have to be fair."

    As in "I am mom, I don’t have to be fair for I am responsible for you and I know better"?

    If so, I wonder if you’d accept God answering the same to you?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    UnBeguiled said: ”Why should anyone expect ultimate justice?”

    Because they believe that reality is ultimately good.

    And why should they believe that? Many reasons. For some it’s just a matter of how reality feels like despite all the evil around them, for others a matter of reasoning, for others a matter of trust, for others a matter of mystical realization.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Dianelos I have no response since I do not believe in any gods.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    "I wonder if you’d accept God answering the same to you?"

    Imaginary things never communicate as clearly as mothers.


    We have different standards for what counts as a sufficient "reason" to believe something.

    "For some it’s just a matter of how reality feels like"

    If you allow your emotions to cloud your judgement about reality, you are being epistemically sloppy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    UnBeguiled writes: “If you allow your emotions to cloud your judgement about reality, you are being epistemically sloppy.”

    I was speaking of a value judgment, namely the belief that reality is ultimately good, and value judgments are always based on emotion. For example I have heard atheists often claim that “the universe is wonderful”. Surely they base that belief on emotion, and not on reason, correct?

    I think that emotions or “how it feels like” play a much greater role in the formation of our beliefs than some people think. So, for example, we believe that the world around us exists and is not a figment of our imagination, because the way it feels like. Famously there are no “reasons” to escape solipsism. Similarly, we believe that other people have minds because how it feels like to deal with them. We believe that the all-important principle of induction is a valid principle just because it strikes us so. We believe that somebody loves us because of how they make us feel. There are many other examples where beliefs we reasonably hold are based on feeling. Here is one important set: Ethical judgments (and ethics is arguably the most important body of knowledge there is) are always ultimately based on emotion.

    Now I will agree that *appeals* to emotion (i.e. to pump other peoples’ emotions in order to make a point) is an often epistemically sloppy practice. A case in point is how some atheists, even knowledgeable ones, pump peoples’ emotions when presenting the argument from evil. For example William L. Rowe, professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University, in his paper “Evel and Theodicy” chooses the following two examples to build his case: “In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering”. The other case is of “a little girl in Flint, Michigan, who was severely beaten, raped, and then strangled early on New Year’s Day of 1986”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    "I was speaking of a value judgment, namely the belief that reality is ultimately good"

    And I was speaking of ultimate justice.

    I do not know if you are a Christian, but relativism is a rather heterodox position. But you're welcome to it.

    "Ethical judgments (and ethics is arguably the most important body of knowledge there is) are always ultimately based on emotion."

    I'm unclear on how you are using the word "knowledge" here. If you are correct about what ethical judgments are based on, then I could "know" that capital punishment is wrong, while you could "know" that capital punishment is right.

    But which of us is correct? Who actually has knowledge about the ethical question?

    It seems to me claiming that there is such a thing as ethical knowledge while at the same time claiming that all ethical judgments are based on emotion is contradictory.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis


    Re ultimate justice: My point was that many people believe that there will be ultimate justice because, based on how their experience of life feels like, they make the value judgment that reality is ultimately good. And if naturalism does not comport with that value judgment then so much the worse for naturalism, which, after all, is not the only game in town. I personally see nothing irrational or unreasonable in their stance. (Incidentally, my moral sense tells me that “ultimate justice” does not entail that wicked people will be punished but rather that wicked actions will never prove to be a smart choice. And conversely that good actions will never be in vain.)

    Re whether moral knowledge exists. It’s hard to argue that, say, “it’s wrong to torture children for fun” does not represent knowledge. People disagree about some moral questions, but this does not in any way imply that morality is therefore not objective or that no moral knowledge is possible. We disagree about who will be the best president, but this does not mean that capacity to govern well is not objective, or that no knowledge about this matter is possible. Indeed naturalists disagree about basic properties of reality, such as whether there is one or many universes, but, again, this does not imply that no naturalistic knowledge is possible. Rather it’s a fact that there are many fields of knowledge where it is not possible (at least in praxis) to perform an objective experiment to settle disagreements. Even in fundamental physics we may be nearing the point where no experiments are possible. Which is not to say that meaningful knowledge is possible at the absence of empirical consequences. But there are many ways in life to verify beliefs beyond performing an objective experiment.

    So what is morality? It depends on one’s ontological worldview. I’d say that most atheists are scientific naturalists and believe that reality consists only of a material mechanism blindly evolving according to some fixed order (whether deterministic or probabilistic doesn’t matter). Given our moral sense, the naturalist must now try to fit it within that mechanistic worldview. As far as I can see they use one of the following three solutions:

    1. Moral nihilism, i.e. the belief that no moral knowledge exists and that all talk about morality is nonsense. Actually that’s a pretty coherent view, for if reality is a mechanism blindly evolving there can’t be nothing good or bad in it or in any part of it. To think otherwise would be akin to executing a cellular automaton, such as the “game of life”, and saying that these regions are “good” and those regions are “bad”. It’s completely ad hoc.

    2. Consider morality to be a property of the sociobiological evolutionary process that produced both the structure of our brain and of our culture. The problem here is that any naturalist who believes this will realize that they are free to overcome their genetic or societal conditioning and act only according to the egoistical self-interest as long as they can get away with it. Not a pretty picture. And this solution does not touch on the fundamental problem: The question is not to explain human moral behavior, but rather to explain what it is that makes some human behavior morally good and some morally bad.

    3. Consider morality to be a practical human invention that helps us live well together. But this is a circular position, because what “living well together” means is also a moral value judgment.

    On theism our sense of morality fits much better: Moral truth describes the character of God, moral action is the action that transforms our character to resemble God’s, and moral knowledge is about discovering how God’s character is. There are many ideas about how to achieve the latter: Following a particular path of life which gives one intimate knowledge of God, using the so-called “sensus divinitatis” which is a fundamental cognitive property of the human condition, studying the ripples that God’s active revelation in human history has left behind, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled


    You are quite slippery, like a good theologian has to be. First you say that all ethical judgments are based on our emotions, but now you want to somehow base morality on the characteristics of a transcendent being.

    The epic FAIL of the latter account of morality was exposed 2300 years ago.

    I have not claimed one way or the other whether a sense of morality could be properly called knowledge. But you have, and you have now given two different accounts of what that knowledge is grounded on.

    So now you have an even bigger problem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    UnBeguiled wrote: “First you say that all ethical judgments are based on our emotions, but now you want to somehow base morality on the characteristics of a transcendent being.

    Right, and there is no contradiction between the two. The latter expresses what ethical knowledge refers to, and the former expresses how one attains ethical knowledge. In other words the latter pertains to the ontology of ethics and the former to the epistemology of ethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    "In other words the latter pertains to the ontology of ethics and the former to the epistemology of ethics."

    Nice try, but you are still tangled up in knots. Your ontology fails as argued in Euthyphro, while your epistemology has you mired in relativism. Go back to the drawing board, your meta-ethics is a catastrophe.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    UnBeguiled wrote: “ Your ontology fails as argued in Euthyphro, while your epistemology has you mired in relativism.

    Euthyphro is based on the assumption that something is good because God commands it, whereas according to the ontology I presented something is good because of how God is. So I don’t see the failure UnBeguiled alludes to. Incidentally, and contrary to what many believe, divine command theory is not part of official Christianity, let alone a necessary aspect of theism. Here is what Michael Martin writes in his “The Case Against Christianity”: “Similarly, although the Divine Command Theory is often associated with Christianity, it is not the official Christian metaethical view.

    As for UnBeguiled’s point that the epistemology presented entails relativism, this is true in some sense, because the best action depends not only on the external circumstances but also on the actor’s current state of character. But this does not negate the objectivity of ethics. As an analogy, for two people climbing the same mountain from different positions the best direction towards the peak may be quite different.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11399828220100913111 UnBeguiled

    "something is good because of how God is"

    And God is good I suppose? Which means something is good because good is good. No need for God then. Your reading of Euthyphro is quite deficient.

    Should you and I discuss an ethical question, I suspect our descriptions of the mountain peak would be quite different. But perhaps we could discuss it further, and arrive at a consensus. Don't look now: you are a utilitarian.

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