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From Where We Sit

Life is not fair

Anton Ng

Having three kids, my wife and I often grapple with questions on our fairness to them. Do our kids equally receive the love each of them deserves? Do we give them with the same amount of affection, time, and engagement? Do we play favorites? The quest for fairness is manifested in different ways, and is highlighted in different facets of our lives. We look for fairness in our families, in our schools, in our work, and in our society.

As much as we want to think of ourselves as persons who insist on fairness for all people, we demand fairness especially when we are at the receiving end of an unfair circumstance. Do you remember when we were breaking our backs to create a school project and got an A- for our efforts, while the teacher’s pet got an A+ for their unimaginative output? Do you remember the heartbreak and anger we felt when we did not get a promotion, but one of our colleagues who we perceive as less qualified than us is now a level higher? What about the people who have constantly screwed our society and, yet, are oftentimes rewarded with more wealth and power?

Yes, we get it. Life is not fair. We hear this from our friends and family when they try to console us after a heartbreaking event. We hear and believe it, because the people telling it to us have a working assumption that, in this situation, we deserve more or that we have better judgment.

Have you been at a basketball game? Have you seen and heard people throw accusations of being unfair to the referees when they shout “luto!”? I have done it many times. I have mostly done it when my team was at the receiving end of a bad call. Do I accuse the referee of being unfair if the call was against our opponents? No. Whenever I accuse the referees of being unfair, it is as if I am telling them that I know the rules better than they do, that I have a better vision of what happened and that I, an avid supporter of my team, am not biased. The same can be true when we question the decision makers in our workplace about who to promote. We feel there is a mistake, that the promotion should have been ours. Maybe we are right, but did we consider we could be wrong, simply because those making the decisions have a better perspective of employee performance?

Yes, life is not fair. It is a self-evident truth. However, consider this: by accusing others as being unfair, with our own limited information and with our own biases, are we then being unfair as well? If we are accusing of unfairness, because we think they might have committed an error, deliberate or not, are we saying we are free from committing the same error?

I am not, by any means, asking readers to be silent in the face of unfairness or injustice. This is simply a reminder that the same factors that cause unfairness are in all of us. We all have limited resources. None of us is infallible. All of us tend to be greedy and selfish. None of us has the perfect information. The last thing we want is to unfairly accuse somebody as being unfair.

Neither am I advocating that we should let unfairness prevail, since life is unfair anyway. If we have something we can do to make this life a little bit fairer, then by all means. However, do not let the search for more fairness hinder us from making decisions, because our limited resources do not allow us to be fair to everyone.

There is a story about a boy who had three coins in his pocket. As he walked to school, he decided he would give the coins to the homeless people he would meet along the way. This was his way of trying to address unfairness in the community. He saw 10 beggars on the street. With only three coins, he hesitated and started to ask, “Is it fair that only three of them would get a coin from me?” He decided not to give anybody any coin to be fair to them all.

Let us be careful before accusing somebody of unfairness. Neither should we become cynical, because life has always been unfair. A balanced view of life requires us to acknowledge that life is not fair and that we should not be ruled by emotions arising from being at the receiving end of unfairness. May we be governed by the hope that, at the end of all of this unfairness, we will come out as somebody better. That is our hope. May we strive to be fair in all our dealings, because it is the right thing to do, even if the world will never be completely fair.

Anton Ng is a Partner, Audit & Assurance of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading Audit, Tax, Advisory, and Outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 21 Partners and over 850 staff members. We’d like to hear from you!

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As published in The Manila Times, dated 10 July 2019