Saturday, November 11, 2006


The Value of Fairness

In a comment to the last post, an anonymous student complained that two members of Prof. Powell's TOC team got to take the PR test late (they were in competition at the time the test was given, then there was no time to give it this past week when both they and I were available). The gist of the complaint was that this is not fair, and Anonymous further suggested that "fairness" should be as important as the virtues of honesty, engagement, and humility that I emphasized in PR class.

First of all, if the worst thing about my PR class was that a few people got the test rescheduled, I did way better than I thought I did (personally, I can think of several things I need to do differently next time). As for fairness...

It would seem that Anonymous has a view of "fairness" that requires that similarly situated people (ie, those in the PR class) be treated the same regardless of individual circumstances (ie, the TOC tournament happening the same time as the exam). To me, there are some real problems with such a view of fairness. Coincidentally, I am right now working on a Supreme Court brief that argues against basically that definition of fairness-- in short, I am arguing that judges should be given greater discretion in sentencing rather than being held strictly to the limits of the sentencing guidelines. Obviously, that sense of fairness is not something I find to be as important as some other values.

It's not that I ignore the idea of fairness generally or think it isn't a positive value. One way I'm aware of it is that I have been unfairly advantaged in many ways-- I was lucky to be born into a relatively affluent home where my parents read a lot and read to me; I was able to go to good schools when others were not; and my few talents are overvalued in our society. Being the recipient of such unfairnesses, I do feel a special obligation to the society that advantages me in that way. It's funny, but I gave a little speech to my own mock trial team about exactly this issue of obligation: That they had an obligation to perform well for the many hard-working students who were back in Waco taking tests. The gist of it was that the world doesn't know how hard Baylor students work in PC, and the team had an obligation to make that known through the competition.

In the end, there is some unfairness I care deeply about. For example, there seems to be something profoundly unfair about the way in which education is provided for poor kids vs. rich kids. I think there are profound unfairnesses in the federal sentencing guidelines, and I try to do something about that. As for letting Prof. Powell's TOC team take the test late... If that is the injustice that truly bothers you among the problems of the world, you are just going to have to live with it.

True dat
Fair is not always equal
I think the post was more geared about those who took the Evidence final later. It is completely fair that they take the test late (as they had the competition--and did well--congrats!). However, the members of that team who skipped class for more than half of the week to study for the exam are the ones who are more of a concern. I applaud those members of the team who managed to come to each class prepared and take that final, too.
The only flaw I see with your comparison to federal sentencing guidelines is that in the case of testing we are all being compared to one another. In sentencing guidelines, even if everyone were held to the same standard, since it is not relational, one person getting a lesser sentence would not preclude someone else from getting that same sentence. The same is not true in the case of grades. We are all graded on a curve, in which we must compete for a limited number of high (or even mediocre) grades.

I think it's great that Baylor had PC students representing our school. I, too, think that is important. However, there are other ways of addressing this problem than giving the exact same test a week later.
I think fairness should be if other students get 3 days to prepare than anyone else should be limited in their amount of time to prepare to roughly the same amount of time. This should work for all finals and for any excuse for missing them.
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