The song “I Walk the Line” is about the sacrifices and the devotions of love –the profound lengths to which we will go for our favorites. The bonds of favoritism create moral gravity and contour the way we treat people inside and outside the gravitational field. I don’t walk the line for just anybody. Johnny Cash wrote that famous song about his first wife in 1956, when he was touring on the road and struggling to stay faithful. Cash refers to the “tie that binds” and celebrates his own willingness to be constrained by the heart. This is not the realm of fairness, or equality, or impartiality. But it is a moral realm of value and action, all the same.
The fact that Cash couldn’t make this noble fidelity last is slightly amusing, but tolerable, I suppose, when viewed from a mature perspective on romance. He famously took a new favorite, June Carter, and the rest is history as they say. But, it also reveals the obvious human flexibility of the “tie that binds.” Some of our privileged favorites are automatically given (e.g., mothers, fathers, children, siblings, ethnic tribes), and some of them are more freely chosen (e.g., spouses, friends, aesthetic and political tribes).
The relationship between freedom and favoritism is complicated. On the one hand, freely choosing one’s spouse is a luxury not afforded in many parts of the developing world. But more provocative is the possibility that romantic connection is not much of a free choice in the developed world either. Who you end up “falling for” seems (sometimes tragically) way out of your control. We do not rationally choose our families, or who we love, or even who we become friends with, but these commitments of loyalty make us who we are.
The Left thinks of fairness as egalitarian “equal outcomes” distribution, and the Right thinks of fairness as meritocracy (i.e., the winner takes the spoils, the qualified take the reward). Frequently, these are incompatible notions of the good, and the tension between them may have never been more intense. But running orthogonal to the debate about fairness is this more obscure yet fundamental issue of favoritism. Our deep ethic of favoritism flies in the face of egalitarianism because our favorites get more than others (i.e., more of our time, resources, devotion), and it flies in the face of meritocracy because our favorites do not “deserve” more. The people I love are not the most excellent human beings I know, in terms of skill and accomplishment. So, both the Right and the Left do not know how to incorporate their deep commitments of loyalty into their ethical framework of fairness.
Populism on the Right and “identity wokeness” on the Left are clumsy attempts to recognize our deep sense of positive favoritism. Stuck with an impoverished notion of the good as fairness, each side demonizes the other because they recognize the other side privileging their preferred tribes — but they do not recognize themselves doing the same.
The cosmopolitan and progressive proponents of the open society think that nationalists and patriots are intrinsically xenophobic, but that is not necessarily the case. To prefer your tribe is not the same as harming another –you can have great loyalty to your favorites, and benign neglect for strangers or other tribes. You can practice biased generosity to your tribe, and still afford strangers the respect and ethical regard due all citizens. But, yes, if push comes to shove (resources become scarce), then loyalty transcends equity. “I do not think,” Evelyn Waugh once stated (p.161), “that British prosperity is inimical to anyone else, but if, on occasion, it is, I want Britain to prosper and not her rival.”
Instead of doubling down on impartiality and unbiased fairness, we should make room for loyalty under the umbrella of justice. The ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Confucian Chinese, gave loyalty an important position in ethics. We would do well to remember that favoritism and even tribalism have a place in the good life.
Against Fairness is being published this month in paperback by University of Chicago Press.
Stephen Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of 10 books, and writes regularly for the New York Times and Aeon.