Skip to main content

Against Fairness

From the school yard to the workplace, there’s no charge more damning than “you’re being unfair!” Born out of democracy and raised in open markets, fairness has become our de facto modern creed. The very symbol of American ethics—Lady Justice—wears a blindfold as she weighs the law on her impartial scale. In our zealous pursuit of fairness, we have banished our urges to like one person more than another, one thing over another, hiding them away as dirty secrets of our humanity. In Against Fairness, polymath philosopher Stephen T. Asma drags them triumphantly back into the light. Through playful, witty, but always serious arguments and examples, he vindicates our unspoken and undeniable instinct to favor, making the case that we would all be better off if we showed our unfair tendencies a little more kindness—indeed, if we favored favoritism.
Conscious of the egalitarian feathers his argument is sure to ruffle, Asma makes his point by synthesizing a startling array of scientific findings, historical philosophies, cultural practices, analytic arguments, and a variety of personal and literary narratives to give a remarkably nuanced and thorough understanding of how fairness and favoritism fit within our moral architecture. Examining everything from the survival-enhancing biochemistry that makes our mothers love us to the motivating properties of our “affective community,” he not only shows how we favor but the reasons we should. Drawing on thinkers from Confucius to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, he reveals how we have confused fairness with more noble traits, like compassion and open-mindedness. He dismantles a number of seemingly egalitarian pursuits, from classwide Valentine’s Day cards to civil rights, to reveal the envy that lies at their hearts, going on to prove that we can still be kind to strangers, have no prejudice, and fight for equal opportunity at the same time we reserve the best of what we can offer for those dearest to us.
Fed up with the blue-ribbons-for-all absurdity of "fairness" today, and wary of the psychological paralysis it creates, Asma resets our moral compass with favoritism as its lodestar, providing a strikingly new and remarkably positive way to think through all our actions, big and small.

Watch an animated book trailer here:

Listen to an audio interview.

224 pages | 23 line drawings | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2013

Philosophy: Ethics, General Philosophy, Philosophy of Society


“Mr. Asma offers a rightly critical diagnosis of our obsession with egalitarianism.”

Meghan Clyne | Wall Street Journal

“Asma refreshingly outlines the moral virtues that come with favoritism: loyalty, generosity, and gratitude. While it might strike some as cruel or outdated to accept that we tend to care more about those close to us, Asma shows that this outlook is actually conducive to the moral virtues that utilitarians struggle to justify.”

Reason | Matthew Feeney

Against Fairness is a terrific book. Stephen T. Asma goes a long way toward convincing readers of a challenging argument. Engagingly written, it avoids the ponderousness that so often characterizes work in philosophy, and I would recommend it to anyone who seems excessively committed to ‘fairness’ as the sine qua non of just policy.”

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice

“Every once in awhile a book is published whose very concept snaps your head back and elicits an internal ‘Whoa! I hadn’t thought of that!’ Against Fairness is one such book. We are all so strongly shaped by modern liberal sensibilities of fairness that the very idea that, in fact, all of us (Jesus included!) play favorites—and justly so—is jarring. But once you think about it—which Asma does with cogent arguments and ample empirical evidence—being indiscriminately fair to everyone makes no sense whatsoever. Whence then do we find morality and justice in an unfair world? Asma shows how in this important contribution to the national conversation.” 

Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain

“Asma realizes, with a sigh, ‘that I will be seen as some conservative Ayn Randian and my book read as a social-Darwinist screed,’ merely for telling his son that it’s not possible for everyone in a race to win it. But that will miss his main point, Asma continues: he’s not arguing for a Little Red Hen merit-based fairness over a prizes-for-all equal-shares fairness; he’s arguing for a favouritism that flies in the face of both concepts, one that privileges our tribes (by blood or affiliation).” 

Brian Bethune | Maclean's

“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.”

Zsuzsi Gartner | the Globe and Mail

“Asma’s philosophical take on reevaluating what is considered to be ‘fair’ addresses the topic of fairness in a refreshing way, eschewing the culture of rewarding everyone for favoritism.” 

AirTalk with Larry Mantle, 89.3 KPCC

Table of Contents


1  Even Jesus Had a Favorite
Saints and Favorites
Fairness, Tribes, and Nephews
Two Classic Cases of Favoritism

2 To Thy Own Tribe Be True: Biological Favoritism
Moral Gravity
The Biochemistry of Favoritism
Humans Are Wired for Favoritism
A Healthy Addiction
Flexible Favoritism
Kin Selection
Rational or Emotional Motives
Conflicting Brain Systems
Facts and Values

3 In Praise of Exceptions
Building the Grid of Impartiality
Going Off the Grid
Friendship and Favoritism
Reasonable Favoritism
4 “But, Dad, That’s Not Fair!”
The Fusion of Feelings and Ideas
Sowing the Seeds of Confusion: Sharing
Sowing the Seeds of Confusion: Open Minds
Envy and Fairness
Excellence, Fairness, and Favoritism

5 The Circle of Favors: Global Perspectives
Chinese Favoritism
Face Culture
Indian Favoritism
Disentangling Nepotism and Corruption
Disentangling Tribalism and Tragedy

6 “Your People Shall Be My People?” 
Minorities, Majorities, and Favoritism
Affirmative Action and Favoritism
The Finite Stretch
Feeling the Stones with Your Feet
7 Because You’re Mine, I Walk the Line
The Virtues of Favoritism
You Can’t Love Humanity. You Can Only Love People
The Future of Favoritism
The Archbishop and the Chambermaid


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press