Laurie Zoloth, a religious scholar and bioethicist, has spent years helping scientists and policymakers around the world examine complex ethical dilemmas. What responsibilities do humans have in the face of climate change? How can we address health care disparities that continue to devastate Black and brown communities? How do we convince people to set aside their personal preferences and do the right thing? And above all, how do we make our world more fair?
For Zoloth, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, the coronavirus pandemic offered yet more proof that it’s not enough to appeal to Americans’ feelings of patriotism or even to other secular ideas about working for the greater good of the greatest number of people. Tackling Covid-19 required every American to make personal sacrifices to protect society as a whole. But there was still loud resistance from individuals who thought that the ask was too great — who did not want to be part of that mutual project or were opposed to submitting to the state’s regulations.
The language people use to think through public health and justice issues has become deeply fractured and politicized, Zoloth said. That’s why she believes religion, which offers a rich and complex set of metaphors capable of uniting a broad swath of people, is so important. Particularly in a country where most people identify as belonging to a religion, Zoloth said, faith-based appeals for fairness can have resonance.
“Religion has been a great historical source for people interested in reasons to love their neighbors and vulnerable people, because religion doesn’t disregard the broken,” she said. “In a culture that valorizes youth and fitness and health, religion still remains powerful in part because it understands the fragility of human life.”
Many religious texts describe how ancient peoples struggled to achieve fairness and confront scarcity, and how they set standards to equitably divide resources and labor during periods of famine and plague. Today, many religious leaders still posit a radical egalitarianism that asks people to consider their neighbors’ plight, cultivate compassion, and envision a more equal world.
Vox asked seven religious and ethical leaders to reflect on how their respective traditions approach the concept of fairness. Several told Vox that it’s not enough that the good things in life — wealth, security, happiness — are distributed fairly. They should also be distributed justly, in a way that redresses past wrongs and addresses systemic problems.
As the US races toward subduing Covid-19 within its borders, Zoloth said religious perspectives on fairness and justice can help Americans realize the country’s obligations to the rest of the world, particularly to impoverished nations currently devastated by the virus.
“We have an obligation to our neighbor,” she said. “Not only because it’s in our interests, but because it’s the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do.”
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Chaplain, Harvard University and MIT
I don’t tend to speak much about fairness. We can understand fairness when we are children, fighting with our siblings or classmates. But as we mature, I think that what we want more is a just world. What we want is a world in which there aren’t massive systemic gaps in the kinds of lives that some people get to have, based on their gender, race, birthplace, sexual orientation, or when and how their ancestors got to the place where they live. We want a world that provides for a good and decent life for every person on it.
Human beings have two core impulses. First, the impulse to be selfish, to conquer. But we also have, in my belief, an equally powerful impulse to appreciate, support, and nurture one another. Which impulse wins out depends on what we’re fighting for. For me, a humanism that is worth working toward is a humanism that insists that we’re all worthy of care, respect, and love. And therefore, we’ve got to push back as hard as we can against a world that strips some people of their dignity.
I’m very close with religious people who believe deeply in a divine vision for fairness and justice. I think it causes them as individuals and communities to do wonderful, reparative, and life-giving work. But from a humanist perspective, I wonder — is it better to believe in an afterlife of some kind that provides for more fairness?
Or is it better and more true to believe, as I do, that we get one chance, while we are alive, while we are trillions of interconnected cells composed of the material of ancient exploded stars, making each and every one of us one of an unplanned experiment that allows the universe to know itself? Is it better to recognize how finite our lives are? The more we recognize that this is our one shot, the more it focuses our minds and hearts to take action immediately.
We really can’t continue to pass this state of affairs on to the next generation. Which generation will be the one to finally commit to more fairness and justice? A lot of people want it to be this generation. I’m hopeful that it can be this one. If we’re going to have fairness, if we’re going to have justice, we have to recognize that it is in our own hands.
Imam Omar Suleiman
President, Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
When Malcolm X went to Hajj, his entire worldview was transformed by the possibility of humanity coming together as one, under one God. In Mecca, he saw people from all walks of life, racial backgrounds, and economic statuses honoring one another as brothers and sisters in the sight of God. Malcolm was shocked by the sight of “white” Muslims who ate with him and loved him like a brother. But it was about more than just breaking bread together — the pilgrimage taught Malcolm that humans also have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of those who didn’t have a loaf of bread in the first place, or had it taken from them. When we dishonor human beings, we dishonor our covenant with God.
Fairness means striving against inequity in pursuit of comprehensive justice. Justice (adl in Arabic) and fairness (qist in Arabic) can be used more or less synonymously, but they do have subtle differences. Justice is an approach to life, and fairness is a more tangible manifestation of it. If justice is the tree, fairness is the fruit.
God can never be blamed for any unpleasant experiences in life, because our perspective is very limited. What we may consider unfair at a particular moment is ultimately fair in the context of God’s plan for us. So Muslims persevere until the fairness of God’s plan becomes apparent.
Created beings can certainly be unfair to each other. And Muslims are strongly encouraged to pursue and demand fair treatment for themselves, and even more importantly for others, through a range of reasonable means depending on the situation (e.g. arbitration, a legal process, advocacy, etc.).
Fairness is not necessarily an elusive goal in Islam. In many situations, fairness can be achieved. But, of course, many people in this world are dealt with unfairly or they are unfair to others, and the scales never seem to be balanced in their case until they pass away. From an Islamic perspective, they are only moving on to receive God’s inevitable, perfect justice. So Muslims believe that all matters will ultimately end in the fairest way, but the timeline for reaching that point extends beyond this life, to the Day of Judgment and the eternal life to come.
Assistant professor of integral mission and global transformation, Fuller Theological Seminary
My religious tradition wouldn’t use the term “fairness” here. Instead, we talk about justice. We believe that injustice is a manifestation of human sin, that it occurs both individually and communally, and that it is often embedded in systems and structures.
For Christians, fairness, or justice, is rooted in the idea that everyone’s desires and needs are equally important. Fairness is also contextual — it’s a balancing act. To do this well, we need to be in a right relationship with others. Scripture often uses the metaphors of a family or a body to describe that relationship. Sometimes, we must intentionally prioritize those who have not been prioritized in the past, in order to restore a vibrant balance. 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 refers to the members of the body of Christ and instructs us to give more honor to the parts that have lacked it, so that “there should be no division in the body but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”
In the Christian context, mercy and justice are connected. Many people in our society see justice as receiving what you have earned. The truth is that we all need more goodness than we have earned. We all need second chances, the room to make mistakes and cause damage without losing the opportunity to grow and fulfill our dreams.
At the same time, justice requires that a price be paid. Christians believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paid what is cosmically owed, satisfying the balanced scales of justice, so that we can all start over again together, and so that our future potential overcomes the pain of the past. Starting over means working to create just relationships in the present and future. This may require extra effort and contribution on the part of the offender or the one who has broken the relationship.
If justice is the will of God, then we have to use whatever power we have to achieve it, regardless of whether we’re the ones who directly benefit. That does not mean that we can expect to always achieve justice. Christians believe we live in a broken world that is in a long process of redemption and restoration, which will not be complete until Christ comes back.
Board member, Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus
There are myriad ways to interpret and practice Hinduism. As someone brought up in Swadhyay Parivar — a movement that is intercaste, multiethnic, and welcoming of all religious traditions and families with affinities to any deities — I’ve learned that when we assess what is fair, it’s important to be aware of our own feelings of entitlement and our inflated egos. Unfairness is caused by humans’ desire to exercise power over others. This is why God blessed us with intellect in a way that the other creatures were not — ideally, to use that intellect in ways that are fair, good, and just.
The focus of Hinduism is not on the problem of good and evil, but rather on sublimating attachment to the material world to seek moksha, or release from the cycle of rebirth. Hindu texts do not lay out a utopian setting for fairness and overall take a very blunt assessment of the state of human affairs. It may be naive to expect fairness, which is interpreted by human beings.
Karma, on the other hand, is cosmic. Karma, which refers to the totality of our actions in this and previous lives, deals with our motivations. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes three types of karma. The first, sātvika, is motivated by goodness, performed without ego and gives one liberation and inner peace. The second, rājasī, is performed in passion, which means one becomes attached. The third type, tāmasī, is performed out of ignorance and results in the downfall of the body, mind, and soul.
As long as we are motivated by materialism and our understanding of the world is clouded by ignorance, fairness will remain elusive. Maybe fairness would be achieved by all if everyone practiced seva (selfless service) as their form of bhakti (devotional worship), but Hinduism asserts that our being in samsara (the world) makes suffering unavoidable. If our goal is moksha, then the relevance of fairness plays out in an individual’s sātvika karma. That means taking actions that prioritize fair outcomes is an element of our quest toward oneness with God.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Professor of Buddhist studies, University of San Diego
There is no direct correlation to fairness in Buddhism. Fairness in the sense of justice is most closely related to karma (actions) and the law of cause and effect. Situations in this world often seem unfair — it’s the perennial question of why bad things happen to good people while some despicable people seem to thrive.
For Buddhists, the question is answered by understanding that life experiences are the result of our own actions. Just as mango seeds give rise to sweet fruit and bitter melon seeds give rise to bitter fruit, good fortune is the result of wholesome actions of body, speech, and mind, while misfortune results from unwholesome actions. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “All beings are the owners of their karma. Whatever volitional actions they do, good or evil, of those they shall become the heir.” This means that we are responsible for our own actions and their consequences. The doer of an action experiences the results of the action and no one else.
The law of cause and effect is predicated on an understanding of the theory of rebirth. This theory presupposes that sentient beings are born into different states of existence and experience favorable and unfavorable experiences in accordance with their actions. The system operates over multiple lifetimes, which resolves the nagging perennial question above. The seeds of wholesome actions may ripen either in this lifetime or some future lifetime, when conditions are conducive, with no predictable timeline. From a Buddhist perspective, the system is perfectly fair.
Most of us cannot see the past lives of ourselves and others, but we can grasp the general outlines of how karma works. For example, if we witness an incident of injustice, it may be appropriate to intervene skillfully but unwise to use aggression or violence. Generating lovingkindness and compassion is a skillful way of diffusing sticky situations and helps create a happier future for all.
Rabbi, director of interreligious and intergroup relations, American Jewish Committee
Fairness as a value is first introduced in the Jewish tradition implicitly in God’s mission statement for Abraham and his descendants, the Jewish people: “To keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.” Included in “doing what is just and right” is a mandate — spelled out in Judaism’s sacred texts — that our personal dealings and societal structures be conducted with fairness.
Fairness can manifest when we treat all human beings as creations in the Divine image. This is particularly important today as we respond to polarization in the US and elsewhere that has expressed itself, at times, with demonization of the “other.” The Jewish people have experienced discrimination and much worse throughout history. Therefore, as America grapples with racial injustice, Jewish values of fairness and its corollaries are and will be brought to bear as we work together to address America’s challenges.
Fairness is something worth working toward, but it is only one of many values. In fact, although the concept of fairness exists in the earliest Jewish texts, there is not a specific word in those texts that captures our modern understanding of the English word “fairness.” Other important values include righteousness, justice, goodness, lovingkindness, graciousness, honesty, humility, etc.
The Jewish concepts of the immortality of the soul and afterlife are, in part, responses to a theological challenge — that is, the realities of life are rectified through reward (and punishment) after death. This is small comfort to many who suffer in this life. Some who have been significantly hurt by life’s experiences adapt an alternative or complementary approach. They seize their pain and utilize it for good by helping others who are in pain or by adopting a cause.
Important Jewish texts espouse belief in a physical messianic figure who will lead the world toward redemption. Many modern Jews believe in a less literal messianic redemption. They see it as their responsibility to redeem the world and therefore participate in tikkun olam, literally fixing the world, i.e., through social justice and lovingkindness endeavors.
Executive director, Movement in Faith
It’s difficult to know what is fair and unfair if we’re not aware of how our own economic, ethnic, and social class impacts our views. Even when someone is aware, they can become so bound in the privilege of that identity that they take a defensive position.
Fairness cannot be defined by capitalism, which measures the value of the earth, its creatures, and humanity by how their production benefits those in power. Christians take God’s metric into account. What does God value, and then value most? Love will always be the answer. What could the earth, its humans, and all of creation look like with a lot more love and a lot less everything else?
The Christian tradition speaks to an abundant life in the present and a new heaven, new earth, and new body after death, without sorrow, pain, lack, or want. So the goal of transformation feels more accessible than that of fairness. How can we be transformed while we live — just as we are comforted by the transformation that happens in death, when we no longer have the struggles of life? Mary Hooks, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Atlanta, says in her mandate that we should “be willing to be transformed in the service of the work,” the work of fighting for justice. This is my goal, to answer that call from God, that mandate from Hooks, for abundant life for everyone, not just for some.
Carol Kuruvilla is a religion reporter, formerly of HuffPost and the New York Daily News.