This is a follow-up to my earlier blog-post Is fair sometimes unfair?

I was reminded of the article When Fairness Runs Foul, and of my earlier encounters with the Japanese sense of “fairness” when I read a chapter by philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand is here playing devil’s advocate – illustrating with an example of her own an opinion with which she in fact violently disagrees. (The opinion she is arguing against is not expressed by a Japanese but by a British journalist – Peregrine Worsthorne). Here is the excerpt from Ayn Rand:

This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance…. Brain power? It’s determined by family life – and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. (Chapter 3 “An Untitled Letter”,  in Philosophy: Who Needs It? )

I cannot recall an occasion when I have heard someone protesting in Japan “fukouhei da!” or “zurui!” who has then been called on to explain or justify the accusation: in Japan, it seems the person who thus protests automatically has the high moral ground, and it is for the other party to explain and justify themselves.

Worsthorne is not Japanese, and is not making a pout, whining “It’s not fair!” like a spoilt child.  He is making a well thought-out logical argument, and he elucidates his rational basis for his claim:

The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent… It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”… Family life is more important than school life in determining brain power… Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.

(Ironically, Worsthorne, Wikipedia tells me, was knighted in 1991, thereby joining the aristocracy.)

The Japanese cry of “Fukouhei” is not so rationally based as Worsthorne’s, although it bears superficial resemblance to “the politics of envy”, and may sometimes be used for that purpose.

In her article, Elwood makes a brief reference to anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra and her book Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

Americans are sometimes confronted with the dilemma posed by the question “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Naturally at times any person may find himself or herself in a quandary regarding the best answer to this query, but perhaps more Japanese are likely to choose the “happy” option more rapidly. This attitude has been termed “interactional relativism” by anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra in her classic Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

A search on Google Books brought me to Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context by Senko K. Maynard (also on I haven’t read enough of either Lebra or Maynard to understand the concepts fully, but this caught my eye:

Lebra combines this concept of interactional relativism with the concept of the “social preoccupation” of the Japanese people, and refers to the combined concepts as “social relativism”.

“Social preoccupation” indeed. Japanese people never tire of telling themselves and each other that “ningen kankei” 人間関係 or human relations, is the most stressful occupation, while at the same time complex and unavoidable. In other words, it’s a pain in the ***. Or perhaps I should quote Sartre: “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres”, Huis Clos, 1944).

In other words, the Japanese cry of “unfair” is not based on an absolute ethic but on a relativist one. What is a relativist ethic? Is there such a thing?

Ayn Rand wrote that “all human knowledge is hierarchical in structure” and that philosophers “must learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” The Japanese sense of “fukouhei” is a derivative, but I’m not yet clear what the fundamental beneath that derivative is.

A favourite saying of many Japanese is “case by case”, meaning the flexibility to decide matters on different factors each time, rather than relying on an inflexible, logical, principle or moral.

I looked up “relativism”  in the Ayn Rand lexicon, but found “pragmatism” instead. Here’s an excerpt:

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate” … A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism.

So perhaps the Japanese preference for “case by case” is an example of a Japanese form of pragmatism.

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