Is Life Unfair? My Challenge to the Best Tennis Player in the World

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Thu, Aug 28 - 9:00 am EDT | 4 years ago by
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Is Life Fair?

Let me brag a bit. In high school I was a pretty good at tennis. Now, many years later, I am an occasional weekend player who has somehow acquired the stamina (and the knees) of a middle-aged man.

But I still have this recurring fantasy that I will play against the best tennis player in the world. The fantasy goes something like this: I am at my local park hitting some balls and who should happen to walk by but the current Wimbledon champion. I challenge him to a match and for some reason he agrees. Another player at the park agrees to be the umpire — and the game is on.

Now an element of realism enters my scenario. This year’s Wimbledon champ is Novak Djokovic. He is 6-foot-2 and 27 years old. I am two inches shorter and twice his age. His first serve averages 120 miles per hour and is accurate 73 percent of the time. My numbers are considerably lower.

So how does the match turn out? Djokovic wins 6-1. What a shocker.

Now for the serious question for this article: Was that a fair match?

Fairness is a key concept of ethics but if you ask three philosophers what it means, you will get four different answers. Many of our ongoing public policy debates turn on competing conceptions of what is and is not fair.

  • Insider trading: If the seller of a stock knows something the buyer doesn’t and couldn’t know, does that make the trade unfair?
  • Telecommunications and the “Fairness Doctrine”: If a radio station criticizes a public figure, in the name of fairness should government regulators require the station to give airtime for the public figure’s response?
  • Campaign finance: If one political candidate raises significantly more funds than her competitor, will the election be fair?

But let’s use the tennis match to show how often we appeal to two very different standards in answering questions of fairness.

Position One argues: Hicks versus Djokovic — that match was so unfair!

Djokovic is a pro and Hicks is an amateur. Djokovic practices hours each day while Hicks reads books in the library. Djokovic is younger, faster, taller, and has more accurate and powerful shots. So Hicks had no realistic chance of winning.

Position Two argues: Hicks versus Djokovic — that match was perfectly fair!

Hicks chose to play against Djokovic and knows who he is. They played by the rules, which were enforced by the umpire. Djokovic used his skills to earn his points, and he beat Hicks fair and square. He deserves the win.

Now let’s abstract the principles built into the two positions’ arguments.

Position One takes as decisive the fact that the competitors have unequal assets. Relevant assets in tennis include practice time, physique and skills. Since one competitor has more and the other has less, they are unequal in assets; but fairness is a matter of equality, so the match is unfair.

It follows from Position One that to make the match fair we would have to equalize the competitors’ chances of winning by equalizing their assets. We could handicap Djokovic by making him wear ankle weights to slow him down, or we could make him play with his left hand to make him less accurate. Or we could give Hicks a head start by spotting him points or letting him use the wider doubles boundary lines instead of the narrower singles lines. Some combination of these methods would equalize their chances of winning and thereby make the match fair.

Position Two takes as decisive the facts that the rules were known and agreed to by both competitors, were impartially enforced, and that the competitor who acquired the most skills and scored the most earned the win. Fairness is a matter of equality, but an equality of knowing what the rules of the game are, the rules being equally applied, and the competitors being equally free to practice and participate or not.

It follows from Position Two that the game would be unfair if Hicks could make up rules as he went along, if the umpire were biased or bribed by one of the competitors, or if either was an unwilling participant. Djokovic chose to practice tennis a lot and acquired his skills, while Hicks chose to think about philosophy; so both have earned their relative skill levels. And if it is important to Hicks to have a realistic chance of winning, then he can choose to play against a lesser competitor — or choose a different sport to compete in. (Perhaps I will challenge Djokovic to a brutal game of Philosophy Trivia Pursuit.)

Sports are a stylized activities in which we engage with important life values — goal-seeking, the exercise of skill, courage, perseverance, victory and loss, and fairness. So they are useful models for teaching children, as well as for understanding our grown-up debates over fairness in our more complicated adult pursuits.

For example, if I am an investor, knowledge of the value of companies is a key asset. But other investors, especially insiders, often know more about those companies than I do. Should I charge unfairness and demand that those who know more not be able to act on their better knowledge? Or should I invest only in companies that I am actually an expert about — or invest somewhere other than in the stock market? That is one sub-debate over insider trading.

Or imagine that I am a public figure who is criticized by a radio personality. In this case, air time is the asset — but suppose the radio station owner dislikes me and refuses to give me air time. Do I complain of unfairness and demand that he be forced to do so, or should I respect that it’s his radio station to do with what he likes, and that I can go on television, write a blog post, or find some other media outlet to tell my side of the story? That is one sub-debate over Fairness Doctrine-type regulations.

Or if I am running for political office and my opponent has raised much more money than I have, citing unfairness, do I call for equalizing controls on how much money may be given to candidates? Or do I say, “Kudos to her” — and in order to be competitive invest more time in door-to-door canvassing of voters, design my campaign posters with better graphics, and plan to have a better fundraising campaign next time? That is one sub-debate over campaign finance reform.

All of those issues are of course complex, but identifying the divergent concepts of fairness in our debates is a key task in sorting out the complexities.

Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at

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  • Alexander Macris

    I think I can pointedly say I’m a proponent of Type 2 fairness.

  • Kami

    I think it’s all a matter of scope. We accept fairness in levels. When you play a game of chess, rules are boundaries that you accept to play in. Every thing ouside the rules is unfair. As for Politics, Media or Investement, (even the game of choosing your opponent for another game) it falls under the “game of Life”, where everything goes.

    Mutual agreement can create a smaller bubble where rules are established. In my opinion, this is the only instance where fairness even exist, because the “game of life” is not controlled by humans therefore we cannot enforce any concept that we established as fair. If we accept that fairness is a human craft, we have to accept that the universe isn’t fair and fairness can only apply in systems we control.

  • Edward Fox

    Great analysis. The common understanding of the concept and what it applies to is incredibly unfocused. I think there’s a case to be made that every pernicious idea relies on imprecision of ideas to perpetuate itself.

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