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Against Fairness Hardcover – November 1, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Contrary to his book's title, Asma (On Monsters), a professor of philosophy at Chicago's Columbia College, is not so fiercely antifairness as he is fiercely profavoritism. After arguing that the biological process of filial favoritism is natural for humans in the same way that breastfeeding is natural, he ponders how the ideology of fairness developed in Western culture, attributing it to the new leveling and democratization of seventeenth-century Holland, Galileo's leveling and mechanizing of nature, and Newton's natural philosophy, Bentham's utilitarian philosophy, and Kant's categorical imperative, and contrasting it with his experience in Eastern culture ( In Confucian cultures like China, I was treated with far more respect than I have ever experienced in the States ). Closer to home, he wonders about the development of fairness in children. Indeed, parenthood may push many buttons for Asma, from his initial musing upon how many people he would kill to save his son's life (and why), to whether that child should have to bring cupcakes for everyone for his in-school birthday (and why not). Agent: Giles Anderson, Anderson Literary Agency. (Nov.)


“Mr. Asma offers a rightly critical diagnosis of our obsession with egalitarianism.”
(Meghan Clyne Wall Street Journal)

“Asma refreshingly outlines the moral virtues that come with favoritism: loyalty, generosity, and gratitude. While it might strike some as cruel or outdated to accept that we tend to care more about those close to us, Asma shows that this outlook is actually conducive to the moral virtues that utilitarians struggle to justify.”
(Reason Matthew Feeney)

Against Fairness is a terrific book. Stephen T. Asma goes a long way toward convincing readers of a challenging argument. Engagingly written, it avoids the ponderousness that so often characterizes work in philosophy, and I would recommend it to anyone who seems excessively committed to ‘fairness’ as the sine qua non of just policy.”

(Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice 2012-04-25)

“Every once in awhile a book is published whose very concept snaps your head back and elicits an internal ‘Whoa! I hadn’t thought of that!’ Against Fairness is one such book. We are all so strongly shaped by modern liberal sensibilities of fairness that the very idea that, in fact, all of us (Jesus included!) play favorites—and justly so—is jarring. But once you think about it—which Asma does with cogent arguments and ample empirical evidence—being indiscriminately fair to everyone makes no sense whatsoever. Whence then do we find morality and justice in an unfair world? Asma shows how in this important contribution to the national conversation.” 
(Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain)

“Asma realizes, with a sigh, ‘that I will be seen as some conservative Ayn Randian and my book read as a social-Darwinist screed,’ merely for telling his son that it’s not possible for everyone in a race to win it. But that will miss his main point, Asma continues: he’s not arguing for a Little Red Hen merit-based fairness over a prizes-for-all equal-shares fairness; he’s arguing for a favouritism that flies in the face of both concepts, one that privileges our tribes (by blood or affiliation).” 
(Brian Bethune Maclean's)

“This is one of those books that I found myself agreeing with one moment and arguing with the next, nodding my head up and down, or shaking it left to right like some kind of dashboard ornament—the bobble-headed armchair philosopher.”
(Zsuzsi Gartner the Globe and Mail)

“Asma’s philosophical take on reevaluating what is considered to be ‘fair’ addresses the topic of fairness in a refreshing way, eschewing the culture of rewarding everyone for favoritism.” 
(AirTalk with Larry Mantle, 89.3 KPCC)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226029867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226029863
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #809,878 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he holds the title of Distinguished Scholar.

Asma is the author of seven books, including "Against Fairness" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2012), "On Monsters: an Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears" (Oxford Univ. Press), "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads" (Oxford Univ. Press), "The Gods Drink Whiskey" (HarperOne), and the best selling "Buddha for Beginners" (originally published in 1996 and reissued in 2008). His writing has been translated into German, Spanish, Hebrew, Czech, Romanian, Hindi, Portuguese, and Chinese.

Asma has written for the New York Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Beast, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, the Fortnightly Review, and Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Asma is a founding Fellow of the "Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture" at Columbia College Chicago. The Research Group is actively working on a philosophical and scientific understanding of the mind/brain that properly incorporates the emotional dimensions of mammalian consciousness.

In addition to Western philosophy, Asma has an abiding interest in Buddhism and Confucianism. In 2003, he was Visiting Professor at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia, teaching a "Buddhist Philosophy" seminar course as part of their Graduate Program in Buddhist Studies. In addition to Cambodia, he has also researched Asian philosophies in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Laos. He has also lived and studied in Shanghai China.

Asma has lectured at Harvard, Brown University, the Field Museum, the Newberry Library, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and many more.

His website is:

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 18, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Despite the bold title of this book, Asma is arguing not that fairness is something that should be done away with, but that exclusive focus on fairness as THE moral standard by which to judge the justice of decisions is wrong. Personal bonds should also play a role in deciding what is just. Yes, if I can save my child or two other children who are strangers to me, (Peter) Singerian fairness would demand that I save the two children I don't know. But, Asma points out, it also makes me a horrible and inhuman father. In other words, the case I came away with was not that we should close our minds to fairness, but open our minds to the possible justice of making decisions based on loyalties and bonds.

Unfortunately, I still found Asma's case to be pretty weak. One of his main arguments is that the idea that we can actually achieve the kind of impartiality utilitarian and deontological ethics demands of us is simply not at all likely. Asma goes through impressive evidence (also gone over in Churchland's impressive Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality) that morality seems to spring from personal attachments and work its way outward (to a very limited degree). Yes, I agree with that. Even when we nod our heads at the idea that it is more just to save several strangers than our own child, few - or none - of us would really be able to do that when faced with the actual situation. But, isn't moral theory about aspiring to be what it is not easy to be? I mean, let's face it; I don't want to do a lot of things for others (because I get no benefit and have to expend a lot of energy).
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Micki on December 7, 2012
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The first time I read the word “edutainment” was in philosopher Steven Asma’s “Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums,” a book that, incredibly, was an absolute page-turner. In his latest work, “Against Fairness,” Asma demonstrates that he has honed the craft of edutainment to a fine art. Here he argues that Western -- or at any rate U.S. – culture has gone over the top in striving for universal “fairness” and that we need a good dose of natural, old-fashioned favoritism based on kinship ties and bonds of affinity and affection. While one might not agree with all his conclusions, his perspective is elegantly argued. Along the way, he provides the reader with fascinating information about alternative cultural constructions, neuroscience, numerous philosophical schools of thought, and much more. At base, it is a book that examines how sloppy our language and our semantics have become and that – with affection and humor – challenges us to examine both our ideas and our expectations.
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28 of 38 people found the following review helpful By John Gibbs TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 8, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
What we really need is more nepotism and less fairness, according to Stephen Asma in this book. Fairness is an unhelpful concept that arises from envy, and when we try to teach our children the importance of fairness by awarding first prize to every competitor in a race we are in fact simply nurturing their feelings of envy and preventing them from learning how to cope with the very unequal way in which the world works.

Many people think that the idea of fairness is supported by the teaching of Jesus, who loved everyone. However, closer examination of the New Testament shows that fairness was not one of Jesus's professed values. He had one favourite disciple. He told the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which expressly contradicts the idea of fair pay proportional to work done. He taught that nobody earns salvation as a fair reward for good deeds; nobody deserves salvation - it is only available as a free unmerited gift.

Several of the author's insights come from his multicultural perspective on life. His spouse is Chinese, and he has spent substantial time living in China, where American notions of fairness do not apply. Liberal secular Westerners see morality exclusively as the respecting of individual rights, with fairness being the defining feature. Westerners do not even recognise other cultural views of morality as including loyalty, purity, temperance, obedience to authority and other values.

Our espoused allegiance to the virtue of fairness is often hypocritical. In public we apply equal opportunity, but in private we apply nepotism. We publicly argue for equal rights for all, but privately work so that our family can benefit more than others.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Edward Durney VINE VOICE on March 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
To be fair, Stephen Asma is not really against fairness. He just thinks that we too often see fairness as a virtue and favoritism as a sin. Americans see everyone as equal, and to be fair all must be treated alike. But Chinese feel free to play favorites. In Asma's view, we should see it as a spectrum between fairness and favoritism, and Americans too should feel free to pick favorites more often.

Otherwise, we may be guilty of what philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers calls the "Jellyby fallacy." Mrs. Jellyby of Dickens's Bleak House was a "telescopic philanthropist" who cared more for a faraway African tribe than her own family. If we truly value fairness, the billion of us who enjoy a high standard of living in the most developed countries should devote all our efforts to help the least fortunate billion in the less-developed countries who have no toilets, no electricity, and no health care. We must help everyone--we cannot focus on our family and friends.

That focus on fairness can lead us astray. Stephen Asma was struck by the parallels with certain Hollywood celebrities who have adopted a veritable United Nations of children from around the world and championed every noble humanitarian cause, but somehow can't find compassion enough to reconcile with their own estranged parents or siblings. This fairness impulse can drive us to de-privilege kin and redistribute benefits to strangers. That's when we should fight it.

I like Stephen Asma's thinking. His wife is Chinese by birth, and he lived with her and his son in the "Chinese district" of Shanghai (in other words, out of the areas where foreigners tend to live). That gives him a better perspective than many of us in the United States have. He can mix Confucius and Christ.
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