What parents reveal with the phrase “well, life isn’t fair”

February 4, 2012

“Parents are not interested in justice — they want QUIET!

-Bill Cosby

When a child protests about unfairness, it is often in the context of a disputed parental verdict. Parents who want to keep peace and quiet sometimes reply with the phrase “well, life isn’t fair”, with the emphasis on life. Whenever I have heard parents or other authority figures say this so smugly, I’ve always thought it was an immature defensive reaction constituting an assault on the integrity of the child’s critical thinking ability, training them to equate some unchangeable entity “life” with the decisions of the speaker. But the words reveal more than the smugness that accompanies power. When parents say “well, life isn’t fair” they unknowingly reveal an important fact about the natalist attitude to life and to children. Life isn’t fair, which means, prima facie, that perpetuating it is an injustice. In order to tolerate and extend the injustice of life, persons intent on reproduction must value life more than fairness. Are parents aware of this, and what do they mean when they say “well, life isn’t fair”? Do they really stand by this statement, which seems so self-accusing?

To begin, we might note that the definitions of fairness and unfairness, because they cut across so many semantic domains, incorporate both a moral and an amoral dimension. The word “good” can refer to a capacity that is devoid of moral content (being good at or for something), as well as being good toward something (the moral sense). Similarly, “fair” can apply to a business deal or an employment contract that is carried out by two parties that are at each other’s throat, with one getting the upper hand, even though from a higher standpoint (such as that of class exploitation) we can clearly see that the deal is unfair, because one party is in a privileged position of power. The amoral sense is what we refer to when we say “fair enough” or “he won it fair and square”. This narrow sense of “fair” refers to a victory that does not violate the rules of the game, while the wider sense refers to a standpoint that explicitly takes the rules of the game itself as being “fair”. Conversely, “unfairness” can refer to a person or persons who are acting unfairly in relation to what is socially approved, or it can mean that those rules are themselves unfair.

When parents tell their children that life isn’t fair, which of these meanings do they have in mind? Do they mean that some parties are bad parties, that some actions violate the social contract, or do they mean that life itself is unfair?

If the first is what they mean, why not just say that some people are bad people? Why say that life itself is unfair? Are they not actually referring to the rules of the game itself? In some contexts, parents might escape the wider implications of the statement by claiming that they are referring to a particular action as being socially unfair. But usually, when a statement like this is uttered, it is not really with an acceptance that the dialogical anchor, or the event in question, really was unfair. They believe that it (usually their decision) was fair.  Most parents, if they feel that their child has been the object of some social injustice, typically attempt to mitigate it, rather than to inculcate acquiescence. These facts, in addition to their use of the term “life”, lends force to the interpretation that parents are referring not to their decision, but to life itself, which demands that, as parents, they make unfair decisions.

Probably, several of these meanings are packed into the statement:

  1. The speaker is noting that “life” is amoral, and in so being it is impossible for life to adhere to human concepts of fairness. This is the factual heart of the statement, which is indisputable. The unfairness is everywhere, such as in distinctions of ability and intelligence. If anything, we might say that in the view of nature, fairness is equal to force, and might makes right. This being the opposite of human ideas of justice, we reach the paradox expressed by Pascal: “it is just that the just be followed, it is necessary that the strong be followed”.
  2. At the same time they are passing judgment on the statement of the child, and are not-so-subtly blaming the child for asking too much from life. In doing this they reveal that life is the object of their true loyalty. If it were otherwise, they would ask life for absolute justice on behalf of the child, rather than deferring to life.
  3. It is a defensive response and an accusation toward the child, a counter-judgment. Paradoxically, it expresses the belief that asking for too much fairness is in fact unfair. In their position as arbiters of justice in an amoral universe, asking parents for too much fairness is in fact unfair to them.
  4. The parent (or authority figure) is defensively justifying their position through a shift in blame, toward an anthropomorphized other, “life”. It is an attempt, as in a real bureaucracy, to push the source of the unfairness up to the higher level. “I’m just following orders”, is the cry of the authority figure who appeals to life as unfair.
  5. They are presuming to act in an informative role, telling the child something they are unaware of, by appealing to a wider experience. It is this experience of life’s unfairness which is supposed to lend support to their statement. The implication of the appeal to experience is to teach resignation; parents themselves tolerated the unfairness of life, and therefore so should the children.
  6. It can also amount to a pure dismissal and an outright gesture of force, because it talks down to the child from a vantage point from which the child cannot change the verdict that has been decided. When the parent says “well, life is unfair”, they mean by life their own self-aggrandized view of their own power, which, to the child, is totalizing and inescapable. In the defensive mode of counter-judgment, they take pleasure in this fact. In doing so, they reassert their own power against the destabilizing effect of a direct questioning of a verdict.
  7. It forms a social function by placing the child in opposition to an entire system of power. It lends its force to all acts of authority as such, with the result that the child learns to accept the determinations of authority figures with finality and conform to them. In this sense, parents mean by “life” the bourgeois concept of social arrangement, under which the child themselves will be harmed by, but also benefit from, socially construed unfairness. In this use, it constitutes a direct on assault on the capacity for critical thinking toward social forms.
  8. If spoken in the presence of other adults, it construes an in-group and out-group with respect to the social power that is being exerted. Because of its smugness, the statement is an attempt to raise the status of the adult speaker within the adult group, by displaying a show of verbal force towards a weaker party.

It is this compact and effective constellation of meanings that explains the persistence of the phrase “well, life is unfair” as a performative act directed at children. It would be an interesting study to see how similar meanings are expressed in other cultures, and against what linguistic background.

All of these senses, perhaps because they are so confused in the minds of the parents who voice them, seem together to constitute a whole which is (or ought to be) persuasive. But in reality there is nothing about the statement that holds water. The shift in blame proves nothing and is in fact an act of irresponsibility, not maturity. The idea that life is amoral and unfair and cannot meet human standards of justice has nothing to do with the specifics of the judgment in question. Revealing their true loyalty to life is a confession of the selfish (or at most species-level) motives behind reproduction, motives which never place the interests of the child as of first importance. And the implication that they tolerated the unfairness confers no force to the idea that anyone else should.

But what is striking is the extent to which the second meaning, that life is the object of the parent’s true loyalty, goes unnoticed and unremarked upon, and coexists with so many other hypocritical protests of personal love we meet with everyday in parent-child discourse. By loyalty we mean that one stands by another against a third. Loyalty arises most patently in the context of an injustice done by that third, which is then to be decided against by the loyal party. In this statement, the parent has sidestepped the call of such loyalty by making life itself the third party, and then lending greater importance to the interests of life than the interests of the child. They are saying, in effect, “there is no justice in this universe where I have created you, I cannot provide it, and so no matter what I may say to the contrary, my loyalty does not lie with you, and cannot lie with you, but rather with the life I have brought you into”.  How can their true loyalty be expressed otherwise, if by the statement they mean in any literal sense that life is essentially amoral? This overlooked meaning is the most significant of the meanings, for it gets to the reason parents have children in the first place. It is from a loyalty to life and a biologically imparted love of the species that children are brought into the world, not from individual love.

Before the reader protests that I leave parents with no option for handling children questioning their decisions, let me offer my suggestion for a performative act that is both more satisfying to the child’s critical thinking ability and less smug in its assertion of power. “Well, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” or some variant is one response that could be better in these cases. Although it does not directly incorporate an admission of unfairness, it does incorporate the idea that life, as such, is unconcerned with providing the lemonade of fairness that humans must squeeze themselves from the lemon of an indifferent universe. It does not convey an unwarranted sense of closure, but a sense of openness and process. Although it might be the subject of ridicule from the child to be asked to make a better situation out of being denied what he wants, it would place things in the right perspective, by teaching him that as long as he has been brought into the world unfairly he must act as part of a cooperative social form to mitigate the suffering inherent around us. He would learn social compromise and be made to view what he sees as injustice in terms of imagination rather than passive acquiescence.

This loyalty of parents to life, rather than the child, is eloquently expressed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which mirrors the performative act “well, life is unfair”. Today we like to think that we are more enlightened and would never engage in child sacrifice. But “well, life is unfair” expresses the extent to which the natalist attitude and worldview must sacrifice the child’s interests on the altar of unchanging circumstances, personified as “life”, and the way in which it does so through a symbolic replay of human sacrifice. The words may be different, but the essence is much the same.  The phrase “well, life is unfair” is much like a replay of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in the following ways:

  1.  A greater force than the parent, which cannot be completely personified, (“life”), is deemed as unfair from the human standpoint, and in the mode of this unfairness demands a sacrifice of the child’s interests. This is like the call of God to sacrifice Isaac. It is a sacrifice no parent wants to make, but which they are made to make by the overwhelming force of the quasi-entity.
  2. Abraham accedes to this call because of the overwhelming force of the interlocutor, which cannot be reasoned with or dissuaded. This amounts to the recognition of the content of the phrase “life is unfair”.
  3. In order to rationalize what he is doing, Abraham suspends his own reason and what he is forced to view as his “merely human” values. This is like saying that “the notion of fairness must serve life, not the other way around”. This leap of faith explains how the statement “well, life is unfair” can coexist with the natalist attitude.
  4. At the last moment Abraham regains Isaac, and his hand is stayed by God, when it turns out that it was all a test. In the same way, present-day parents hope that the “voice” that calls for the sacrifice of the child’s interests (in the phrase “well, life is unfair”) will also be the voice that calls to stay the sacrifice of the child’s interests. Parents hope that this statement will make their child better adjusted to the world. The sacrifice that the voice calls for is a paradox: it calls for the sacrifice of the child’s self-interest, and in the same gesture, it hopes to stay the sacrifice of the child itself through instilling in the child social-interest and the setting-aside of self-interest.

Perhaps this particular correlation between the present day performative act and the biblical story is not an accident, and the myth betrays something very basic about how parents have to relate to their children. In the story of Abraham’s sacrifice, we may be seeing what amounts to an inverted form of the coming of age ritual: it is the picture of a parent coming of age in parenthood. Parents often embark on parenthood with all idealism of youth. They will provide the child everything. A little later on, they discover the real nature of the bargain they have entered into on behalf of the child, and must then manifest their faith in life a second time, by sacrificing the child in one way or another to a greater whole. But what both the story and statement betray is that the loyalty of persons to their offspring is not what it appears. Loyalty does not lie with the individual, but with something more powerful than the individual, which the individual is then sacrificed to.

What has to be noted is that this is all well and good only for the already existing. It is hard to question the wisdom of deferring to life once a child already exists, since life is so much bigger than the child or the parent. But who is to say that a child must exist in the first place and then be subject to the unfairness of life? The child is a separate entity whom we cannot confer with prior to creating it. Perhaps the painful path of self-abnegation required by life is something no future child would wish to embark on. Why, when there is no responsibility to another, should a potential parent set aside their own human idea of justice, by taking the leap of faith in believing that “life” knows better than human reason? It is not as if unborn children float in the ether calling out to be born. The human sacrifice is inherent in the act of procreation itself, long before there is any responsibility to another party. And this is to say nothing of the sacrifice natalism means for the already existing orphans of the world.

“well, life is unfair” therefore reveals a contradiction between the amorality of the universe and the supposed individual love parents have for their children. There remain only two possible ways for the natalist attitude to get around this contradiction. The first is to deny the amorality of the universe, the second is to deny the reality of individual love. The first is the method of a religious upbringing, the second is the method of what we might call a socially interested upbringing. In the next post, we will look at the second of these, examining how the natalist attitude might frame the higher value of life and social interest, as opposed to the interests of the individual, such as in the social interest theory of Alfred Adler, and examine how such framing– though useful from the standpoint of the already existing– fails to account for the ultimate contradiction between social ideals and the reality of the universe we live in.

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7 Responses to “What parents reveal with the phrase “well, life isn’t fair””


  1. Hey, I didn’t even know this blog existed! It looks great, I’m adding to my blogroll right away.

  2. JR Says:

    I’m flattered that you would add me twice, but I’ve just changed my theme.


  3. I just read your entry and wow, this is an incredible piece of work. It will take me some time to digest all that you’ve written here. A very thorough analysis.

  4. isaywhattheywont Says:

    In response to a statement I once made about hoping my children never procreate, a Christian lady at work once told me “But God put us here so that we could have children, and then die.” Ah, the purpose driven life!


  5. I’ve added this entry on my new antinatalist sqworl.
    http://sqworl.com/nc1gf8
    Don’t hesitate to suggest other entries I should add on there.


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