Jan 22 2013

The dueling myth postulate

I wish to postulate that it is useful to think of many disagreements as the collision of two opposing myths. The first myth, what I call the ‘fairness myth’ (and will heretofore refer to as f-myth) is very simply stated: the world is a fair place. You will undoubtedly have heard this described as the ‘just world theory’, ‘just world hypothesis’, or ‘just world fallacy’. I prefer the term ‘myth’ for the reasons I spelled out in yesterday’s post – it is a story that we tell about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Those things we have were obtained fairly, and our position is justified according to our understanding of moral axioms.

The countervailing myth is, of course, the ‘unfairness myth’ (u-myth) – that our position in the world is not in accordance with moral axioms, and that we (or others – more on that later) are being arbitrarily deprived of access to a state of harmonious existence.

I would imagine that it is fairly trivial, at this point, to simply point at the f-myth and say “well we know the world isn’t fair, so this myth is obviously false”, but that would be jumping the gun a bit. Remember that ‘fair’ is not claimed to be an inherent property of the universe, but rather a social convention created by humans. A more precise way of stating the f-myth might be something like this:

In the context of this specific time, place, and society, there is nothing unfair about X.

X, in this case, represents whatever topic or issue or event is under discussion.

Conversely, the u-myth could be phrased this way:

There is something arbitrary and unjustifiable about X.

It is worth noting that ‘the world’ in both of these cases really means ‘the state of things with respect to X’. So if you have a frozen yogurt and I don’t, you might say ‘the world, with respect to the distribution of frozen yogurt among people in this conversation, is fair’, especially if I had the means and wherewithal to earn a frozen yogurt but failed to take the initiative, or whatever set of moral axioms we can agree upon for dessert (meaning ‘things you deserve’, not just referring to sugary foods).

My idea boils down to this: many supposedly disparate arguments are, in fact, unified by the fact that they are disagreements between these opposing myth-based beliefs. What we see as an argument about politics, about race, about discrimination, about gender, about any number of topics, are actually one argument between people who believe that the world is fair (with respect to those topics) and people who do not. It is theoretically possible, therefore, to recognize the similarities between arguments from different spheres as containing the same basic semantic elements.

If we look back to our discussion of the word ‘myth’, you will see the reason I prefer to use this term. Because of the highly subjective nature of an individual’s (or a group’s) evaluation of how fair something might be, the idea of the objective truth of either the statement “things are fair” or “things are unfair” is something of a non-starter. It is instructive to use ‘myth’ in this context for precisely that reason: both arguments are grounded in a story that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it (or the place of others, as the case may be). Either of them could be true, but they cannot both be true simultaneously.

I will use “f-mythers” and “u-mythers” as a short-hand when fleshing this idea out, but I will hasten to point out that I do not believe that there are people who are dispositionally prone to believe that the world is ‘generally fair’ in all things. The mythological position that one adopts can vary from topic to topic, and even from argument to argument depending on the circumstance. I encourage you to interpret these short-hand phrases accordingly.

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  1. 1
    Robert B.

    Ahhh. This explains a lot about how you defined fairness. It sounds like that definition was meant to be descriptive, that is, an account of what people mean when they say “fair.” I was worried, because I thought you were trying to say what people ought to mean by fairness and your definition was awfully relative, apt to excuse a lot of faults because they’re “normal” for the time and place.

  2. 2

    I am not at all convinced that blog posts are the best way to present this argument. The advantage of this kind of modular release is that I can get feedback on every step rather than just the argument in toto, but it also opens me up for misunderstanding.

    We’ll see if it still makes sense when I get to the end of it.

  3. 3

    There’s got to be a “just deserts/just desserts” pun that works here somehow.

  4. 4

    I might be splitting hair, but it seems to me that we often see u/u myth disagreements. Two examples: feminists and MRAs (MRAs believe society favours women), and tax policies (most politicians would agree the system has to be changed, at least to simplify it).
    I think your argument might ultimately be about affirmative action, in which case the simplification towards a u/f disagreement would probably be useful.

  5. 5

    nowoo—yeah, but Ian sort of headed off that pun by (intentionally?) putting one too many “s”es in the word “desert.” “Dessert” never directly refers to something that one deserves. (“Directly” because it’s possible that the “you” in the post above do in fact deserve that frozen yogurt.)

    If it was an unintentional misspelling, it’s a minor blight on what seems to me a very good post that holds tremendous promise regarding its sequels.

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