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Occupy protesters in Toronto in 2011 objected to a lack of fairness in society.

Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail

Against Fairness
Stephen T. Asma
University of Chicago Press

On the subject of fairness (or in this case, unfairness), the dust jacket of Against Fairness inexplicably makes it look like one of those self-helpy books like The Happiness Project crossed with something by successful-habits guru Stephen Covey.

A natty but dignified typography-inflected cover, like the one on philosopher Harry Frankfurt's popular 2005 treatise On Bullshit, would probably appeal more to Stephen Asma's intended readers, who I imagine are more interested in moral philosophy and personal, political and social ethics than in cultivating seven successful habits.

The late cultural critic William Henry III attempted a spirited reclamation of the term "elitist" and extolled the benefits of meritocracy in his engaging and convincing In Defense of Elitism. Similarly, Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, sets out to prove the value and virtues of favouritism, as well as show that "nepotism" isn't a dirty word. (The American political climate being what it is, Asma, like Henry, has taken pains to highlight his liberal cred while taking aim at "bleeding hearts" and "neo hippies.")

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Asma contends that "our culture uses the word 'fair' in a sloppy way, to mean anything good or just" and that conflating "fairness" with "goodness" through disparate other values (justice, equality of opportunity, open-mindedness and even meritocracy) in primary schools, let alone in society at large, is ethically confusing and wrong-headed.

"[F]airness – even as ideal – is not robust enough to handle our big ethical challenges. It's like bringing an accountant, armed with a ledger, to the front lines of a war zone, asking him to sort out the trouble," he writes, throwing the gauntlet down hard, only to sort of snatch it back up again near the end of the book: "It was not my goal to denounce all forms of egalitarian fairness, but to dethrone it as the standard of Western ethical life."

Asma makes the case for favouritism and nepotism, as well as a biased judiciary and variations of affirmative action by arraying some big guns – Jesus, Confucius, Plato, Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, de Tocqueville, Isaiah Berlin – against classical and latter-day utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.

Against Fairness is highly readable, written for the lay reader, not the PhD. Asma illuminates the many philosophers cited in short, lucid strokes, and also brings history, culture, current affairs and science into the discussion.

For example, in his case for favouritism, and, by extension, nepotism, he turns to chemistry and neuroscience, calling it "The Biochemistry of Favoritism." He finds evidence that oxytocin (the love hormone) and brain-based opiates play a role in healthy human attachment and that this "biological bonding is the root system for understanding the ethical pull of favorites."

Asma suggests that "these data bring us toward a more emotionally based, rather than rationally based, ethics."

He writes about being incapable of sacrificing his child for the greater good (literally or figuratively), in keeping with the "ethical calculator" of Bentham and Mill (or, for the fundamentalist crowd, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac). In fact, he begins the book provocatively with a remark he made during a panel discussion on ethics: "I would strangle everyone in this room if it somehow prolonged my son's life." Although his fellow panelists, a priest and a "revolutionary communist," were horrified, I'd say that's an easy point for Team Asma.

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But after pages and pages of arguments about "beneficial nepotism" ("I have your back"), and family and tribal loyalty – lying to strangers if it confers advantage to family, or ripping off others financially, or even not testifying against family members who've committed murder – I couldn't stop visualizing the montage from The Godfather that cuts between the Corleones at the baptismal font and the bloodbath on the streets. (Not coincidentally, Asma notes that filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's extended family has benefited from "benign nepotism.")

And as anyone with a passing familiarity with the Book of Genesis, Greek, Roman and Nordic myths, and holiday dinners knows, the issue of favouritism even among family can wreak havoc on both turkey feasts and civilizations. (Viz: Loki and Thor, the Cain and Abel of the Marvel Comics stable, in the recent Avengers movie.)

Asma holds up China's and India's cultures of favouritism (familial piety in the former, kin nepotism in the latter, but the same in the end) as values the West can learn from, virtues such as loyalty, honour and compassion that are undermined by our "hunger for equality."

Judgment aside, his timing is off, particularly in light of worldwide protests on the Indian culture's view of its women as secondary citizens triggered by the malicious gang rape resulting in the death of a young, middle-class New Delhi woman.

But just because Against Fairness is largely unconvincing doesn't mean it isn't a thought-provoking and interesting read. 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.

Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner studied political philosophy and retains a particular fondness for John Stuart Mill.

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