Life is unfair. We all know it, which should make us wonder why we ever talk of fairness at all. We do because locally, within our sphere of influence and influences, we work to make life fairer. Out beyond these spheres, we ignore the unfairness.
The size of one’s sphere depends on many factors. Generosity, of course. People’s sphere might contain only themselves. They can go about only noticing when the world is unfair to them. In contrast, Mother Teresa’s sphere contained hundreds of thousands of people.

The size of one’s sphere also depends on one’s resources, and that in two contrasting respects. The more resources one has, the more generous one can be, but also the more of a boundary one can construct between what’s inside and outside the sphere. The thicker the boundary the less exposure you have to other people whose misfortune forces you to consider including them. If you live in a wealthy gated community, no one is going to leave an orphan baby on your doorstep.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

A thick boundary between one’s world and the world outside is a luxury good. Homes in good neighborhoods, insurance policies, status symbols that define us as the lucky ones, a species apart from the unlucky—who wouldn’t buffer with such accoutrements if they could? Only the occasional Mother Teresa.

The size of one’s sphere depends also on what’s going on with the people already in your sphere. I was a more charitably inclusive guy before health issues arose within my own family. I shrank my sphere to take care of my sphere’s existing members. Since fortune is not consistent—the wealthiest person can come down with a fatal disease—no matter how hard you may try to exclude unlucky people from your fair-o-sphere, luck can change.

Another factor in sphere design is the rigidity of the boundary. Formal and institutional relationships create our insiders and outsiders. Through marriage one’s spouse and kids become priority insiders. Through religion fellow members become insiders and nonmembers become outsiders. Prejudices form boundaries too. One can say, “The poor, the overweight, this race or that, their misfortune is not disturbing to me. They get what they deserve.”

Boundary rigidity can be a problem but so can excessive flexibility. The better one is at self-deception the more flexibly one can use the boundary to support double standards. Some people will pop you into their sphere when you have something they think they deserve, and will pop you right back out of their sphere if they have an advantage you think you deserve.

And since some people play fast and loose with their boundaries, trust and reciprocation become major factors in fair-o-sphere design. If someone abuses your trust you tend eventually to push them out. It’s simply too costly to have to wonder how to make things fair between you and a mooch. And conversely, when someone in need makes a credible and trustworthy appeal for a favor, you may feel compelled to take them in. After all, it’s only fair.

Distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate claims of fairness is never easy, because none of us can help but depend on self-deception to construct our boundaries. We’re all equally deserving, but we can’t afford to treat everyone as equal. We can declare ourselves in favor of equality, we can hold everyone in a vague abstract regard, but we can’t actively love everyone. All of us have to ignore inequalities.

In our increasingly populous, interconnected, and unequal world it takes ever greater powers of self-deception to successfully construct the boundary. So in a dispute, who’s to say whose boundary is drawn more arbitrarily?

The world is unfair. We try to make it fair within our sphere, but try as we may we don’t always succeed.

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarreled with him?”
—Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662