The Zen of Driving and 
Other Tales About Fairness
March/April 1999

Empowering People

Current Essay
Classes & Workshops
 Send Email
--Unscrupulous, devious, dishonest, deceitful, crooked, curmudgeon, cunning, sly, ruthless, maligner, slanderer, glutton, unprincipled, greedy, sneaky, freeloader, tyrannical, bully, liar--
--Legitimate, honest, reasonable, just, lawful, compassionate, forgiving, tolerant, trustworthy, generous, considerate, openhanded, candid, sincere, respectful--
What do all of these words have in common? They are part of the vocabulary of fairness and unfairness, a theme I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. It’s common for children to protest, "That’s not fair!" Clearly, they have an innate sense of fairness and believe that they have a right to expect and demand it.

I think that fairness (or its absence) plays a very significant part in our adult lives, as well. Yet fairness seems to get scant thematic attention and consideration. I know of hardly anything written specifically about it. When I searched the Internet, I found very little mention of it: almost nothing about interpersonal fairness or even about fairness in advertising or sales. What I did find had a political perspective: fairness in the workplace, in taxation, in media reporting, and in gender issues.

This essay is a modest attempt to explore fairness, to validate our wish for fairness, and to return it to our active vocabulary. Limited space necessitates that it’s only a sketch. But I hope that it encourages you to reflect further on how fairness (or its absence) affects your own life.

I believe that for all of us it’s vitally important to be treated fairly and that fairness is an essential constituent of a fulfilled life. Yet complaints about unfairness seem to be ubiquitous in our everyday world, while concern about being fair appears to be almost incidental.

In so many areas of human interaction—such as advertising, sales, labour relations and politics, and even in our intimate relationships—few who do the advertising, the selling, the negotiating, the politicking, and the wooing seem to be concerned about being fair. For good reason, we have been advised to be mistrustful of those who bear gifts. And we tend to be surprised when we find that someone with something to sell to us turns out to be trustworthy. (Do you recall the old joke about automobile salesmen: "Would you want your daughter to marry one?")

It seems to me that the result of being treated unfairly so often is that we have become preoccupied with it. I would say that most of what we see, hear, do and say—including the content of news reports, books, television programs, movies, and conversations—actually revolves around these twin issues of fairness and unfairness; take for example, dramas about "law and order," news reports about slaughter in Rwanda or Kosovo or negotiations to stop the fighting, the struggle of Blacks, women and homosexuals for equal treatment, or friends complaining about how they got taken by someone.

My recent reading of Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Cialdini, Ph.D.) has increased my sensitivity to the variety of unfair practices common in sales. I now see that such coercive tactics are perpetrated almost everywhere and are by no means limited to professional sellers. Some examples of these practices are:
In Advertising and Sales
    • "Only $9.99" (to fool you into believing that the price is particularly low, whether it is or not.

    • "Starting at just $2.00 Per Month" (Designed to draw you in, but in fact you most likely won’t want the $2.00 item and what you will want costs considerably more. But by then, you will probably be committed and are willing to pay more.)

    • "Hurry, This Offer Expires Soon"... "While Quantities last" (Designed to create a sense of urgency and scare you into making a hasty decision to buy—whether or not you need the particular item—by suggesting that you soon won’t be able to buy the item at this price.)

    • Selling an item that has some unapparent but significant flaw(s), without mentioning this to the prospective buyer.

    • Advertising a computer with a picture of a complete system and with a conspicuously low price, with "monitor not included" obscurely placed in very small print. (Again, to draw you in through the impression that it will cost you less than it actually will.)

    In Personal Relationships
    • Taking someone out to dinner and a movie in order to create a sense of indebtedness, such that he or she will feel an obligation to reciprocate with sex.

    • Buying her a gift when you’ve done something that you expect will upset her, so that when you confess what you’ve done she will feel guilty about being angry at you and be conciliatory instead.

    • Telling a man you’ve met at a social gathering that you’d like to hear from him, but giving him a false phone number.
Sadly, unfairness is ubiquitous. We are surrounded by it. In labour negotiations it ‘s common for both sides to demand more than they expect to get. In business we hear about corporate espionage and cut-throat competition.

In politics, we are bombarded with negative campaign ads and are characteristically presented with slanted and incomplete information. In foreign relations we see a succession of atrocities, the latest in Bosnia and Kosovo. In personal relationships, we see men lying to women to get sex (and vice versa) and both genders concealing information they believe might scuttle the relationship.




I suggest that fairness is essential whenever one person’s behaviour impacts someone else (which I would argue is always true—something not noticed by many people, and of little apparent concern to many others).

I think that we can shine a little light on fairness by looking at how we drive our cars. Driving, like life, is an inherently dangerous activity. When we drive, tons of metal are hurtling along, in imminent danger of colliding and causing damage, injury and death. Driving fairly involves recognising and being considerate of other drivers’ needs. Most drivers grasp this and drive fairly. Among other things, this involves signalling intention to change lanes, not cutting in front of other cars, adhering to the alternating pattern when merging lanes, switching to low beams in consideration of oncoming traffic, taking care that your car is in good repair, not driving "under the influence," obeying the "rules of the road," and so on.

So what does this say about being fair? I suggest that being fair means considering both one’s own and the other person’s concerns; that fairness is the "lived out" concern for the desires and fortunes of both one’s self and the other person, a stance which helps both act in their own best interests, and which almost always benefits everyone.

I think that we have an intuitive sense of what it means to be fair and unfair. We know that it’s fair to keep promises and unfair to not keep them ("You promised!") We know it’s fair to share the bed or the food and unfair to hog them. We know it’s unfair when someone lies to us or doesn’t take us seriously. We know it’s unfair when someone takes what belongs to us without our permission. We recognise that it’s unfair when someone "sneaks" into line ahead of us.

Of course, most of us want other people to be fair with us. But I think that most of us want to be fair, as well, and that when we trust that we’ll be treated fairly we are likely to reciprocate. There is evidence, for instance—with regard to "white collar" theft, one of the largest categories of crime—that when people believe that they’ve been treated unfairly by their employer, they often will steal, but only enough to "balance the scales," even when they have the opportunity to steal more.




Acting to get what I want without also genuinely considering what you want is unfair and likely to be experienced as such. Perhaps less apparent, my sacrificing the fulfilment of my desires in order to fulfil yours, is also unfair. This is because sacrifice is inevitably a reluctant surrender: I sacrifice out of a fear that you or others will negatively judge and then harm or abandon me if my reaching for what I want could interfere with your getting what you want; I really don’t accept not getting what I want and inevitably resent you for it. (We call people like this, "martyrs.") My sacrificing inevitably robs me of what I want, while burdening you with guilt and resentment (for making me feel guilty).. (Please note that "sacrificing" is not the same as making a willing choice—genuine, made "in good faith"—to forego what I want in order to help you fulfil your desires.)

It’s unfair, then, to force something upon someone or to try to convince someone to do something that he or she does not want to do, or that you know is not in his or her best interest. (I can think of one exception here: when someone is incompetent to make choices that are in his or her best interest. But this requires first obtaining competent consultation to ensure that such efforts are truly in the other person’s best interest, explaining to the other person, apologising to him or her, and taking steps to assure that such assumption of control is a very rare event.)

It’s also unfair to knowingly provide someone with distorted, false, or misleading information or to withhold information. It’s unfair, as well, to wilfully harm someone. This includes punishing, teasing, fooling, cheating, robbing or taking advantage of someone’s shortcomings.

I suggest that the basis for most Americans’ dissatisfaction with the recent effort to impeach President Clinton is their realisation of its unfairness. They recognise that he’s done something reckless and disturbing. But they object to the unfairnessof the effort to remove him from office, which seems to be based more on political considerations than on a desire for justice.

Fairness is a fragile structure. When others are unfair to us, we are likely to feel hurt, anxious, scared and angry, and to try to protect ourselves by defending or attacking: by also acting unfairly. Unfairness, then, tends to beget unfairness.

We act unfairly, then, when we’re afraid that others are acting or will act without care for us. Those who have not been treated fairly as children are likely to succumb to unfairness when they are adults: to act unfairly and to reciprocate in kind when treated unfairly.

Ironically, any such effort to keep the outcome from not being in one’s best interest is doomed to make matters worse. This is because it is an effort to control someone. This is the case whether the effort to control is through physical force (such as hitting) or verbal or other coercions (such as threatening, making demands, breaking contracts without concern about the disturbing effect on the other, or omitting or withholding information, or providing false information.) For example, if you knew I had a cold, you would likely want to avoid kissing me, sharing the same slice of pizza, or perhaps even shaking my hand. Were you to discover that I had a cold and hadn’t informed you, you are likely to conclude that in putting you in jeopardy I had acted unfairly. You would see my concealment as interfering with your being able to act in your best interest and as a disturbing failure to care about you.

In my view, any attempt to control someone is always unfair (with the one exception already noted). It is always an attempt to avoid experiencing pain by heading off potentially painful events, like being refused, punished, cheated, hurt, or abandoned.

I think that most advertising, sales, negotiating, politicking, courting, and even friendships commonly involve such attempts to control. In advertising, sales, or courting, for example, it is a common practice to give something to someone—a small pencil by a magazine, some personalised return address labels by a veterans’ group, or an elegant dinner by a would-be suitor—with the intention of creating an indebtedness, such that the other person feels obligated to reciprocate, perhaps by buying something, making a charitable contribution being sexual, or returning an invitation to dinner.

It seems to me that people’s choice to be unfair involves the false premise that "the end justifies the means." For example, when I was a young graphics designer, I was assigned to design a brochure to recruit men for a career driving a bread truck. I was called upon to produce a section with drivers’ "testimonials" extolling the virtues of the career. My boss insisted that we merely make it all up—the names, testimonials, and even the signatures.

I want to assert strongly that whenever we act on the basis of the end justifying the means, we will always be unfair and—even though we might attain short-term gains—we will inevitably reap long-term losses. In this case, many of the men who took the job influenced by the false testimonials are likely to have discovered that the job was not so great (the reason for the shortage of drivers in the first place?) and to have become dissatisfied and resentful about having been fooled. Further, this is likely to have diminished the level of trust of everyone involved. It would move drivers to distrust management and management to judge drivers—many of them are likely to quit after learning what the job is really like—to be unreliable. And those who perpetrated the deception are likely to find it harder to trust that there actually are others who are honest. For my part, when someone tries to sell me something, I tend to be apprehensive (not too unrealistically) about being deceived. Unfairness is inevitably self- and other-defeating.



The Competitive Stance

The commonly accepted dynamic of selling and negotiating is "I’ll do my best to get the most from you and you’ll do your best to get the most from me." It is the competitive stance. This was the case, for example, when I tried to refinance my mortgage, the agent made sure I knew that my new monthly payment would be decreased even though the new loan amount would be larger than my present one. What he didn’t tell me was that in spite of the reduction in monthly payment, the increase in loan amount would result in a much larger payout over the life of the loan. (Fortunately, I discovered this fact before it was too late and succeeded in finding a mortgage elsewhere that will truly save me money.)

The competitive stance does not recognise our connection to one another—our interdependence. In competition, there are necessarily winners and losers and it’s rarely of concern to the winners how the losers are affected. For instance, in this stance, if you’re selling a house, you try to get the highest price you can. Meanwhile, as a prospective buyer I try to pay the lowest price I can. In the process, we are competitors. This is true whether I’m buying or selling automobiles, computers or design skills, or negotiating wages or a repair job.

We readily witness the competitive stance in the cut-throat competition that characterises business (e.g., the computer and software industry). We watch daily, as though we were mere spectators in an ancient coliseum, as one company devours another, as Microsoft and Netscape contend in a battle to the death, as companies bleed to death in bankruptcy, get swallowed up by other companies, or succumb to plummeting stock prices, and workers are put out of work. We witness the mutual destruction of labour and management, as well, that takes place when workers go on strike.

We are likely to see the same competitive structure and inherent destructiveness when we look at relations between the genders. (When I speak of structure, I am speaking of the particular way in which people relate to one another.) This was well-characterised in such movies as "The War of the Roses." I suggest that it’s not an accident that it is often called "the Battle of the Sexes."

In my view, competition is inherently unfair. A common characteristic of the competitive stance is concealing, distorting, and/or falsifying information that could otherwise be of benefit to the other company or person. ("Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?")

Furthermore, the competitive stance is characterised, at best, by short-term gains and long-term losses. It is part of an escalating vicious circle in which one early casualty is trust: Having had my trust shattered in one relationship, I am liable to enter each subsequent relationships more mistrustful than in the prior one and more defensive (or offensive). And it is addictive, as well, to those who participate in it. Sports and gambling are two competitive venues where this is easily visible.



The Cooperative Stance

I want to shed light on what I believe is a far better structure. I suspect that if this is your first exposure to it, you will understandably be dismissive. But I really want you to consider it.

We tend to see competition as inevitable and as a good thing— even as we acknowledge the unavoidable damage that it causes. What we tend to overlook in all this is that there is another structure that is possible, one which is satisfying for everyone involved, one in which the means are commensurate with the ends, and one which leads to increasing rather than eroding trust. It is a cooperative structure. Fairness is the hallmark of such a structure.

The intention of the practitioner is of utmost significance here. The competitive practitioner—whether sales person or wooer—intends to get a foot in the door in order to "sell:" to coerce if necessary and to "conquer." (Is it any wonder, then, that so many men get violent with women?) From the competitive perspective, selling is a challenge in which the seller’s intention is to overcome all of the prospect’s objections, no matter what. (Sales people actually attend classes and workshops in which they learn ever more cunning ways to overcome prospects’ objections.)

From the cooperative perspective, the seller aims to act in the prospective buyer’s best interest.. The intention of the cooperative practitioner is to inform, not to overcome objections. He or she begins by asking permission to inform the prospective "buyer" about the "product" and to examine the buyer’s needs in order to help determine whether the product is of sufficient value for him or her to "buy" it. Central to the cooperative stance is the dialogue. This almost inevitably results in long-term gains, even though there may be losses in the short-term.




I want to make it clear that I am not saying that there’s something wrong with trying to influence someone—for example, to avoid an oncoming car, to stop bothering you, to pay attention to what you’re saying, or to influence a prospective buyer to consider the value of the product you have for sale. There is something wrong with doing so coercively.

What distinguishes constructive from destructive attempts to influence is your intention. When your intention is to inform (after being invited in, of course) in order to provide safety and to help the other person determine what’s in his or her best interest, your attempts to influence will probably be constructive. As a result, the other person will gain trust in you, will be unlikely to become scared of you and try to evade you when you come into view, and is likely to seek you out when in need of supplies, accessories, an upgrade, or some TLC.

On the other hand, when your intention is to sell, you become destructive, since you are attempting to get people to do what is not necessarily in their best interest, and since you unavoidably step outside the dialogue: The other person becomes an object that you are trying to manipulate, without concern for his or her needs and goals, in order to achieve your own ends. This expresses itself as various forms of coercion, such as threatening, or omitting or distorting information. For instance, the ad for a product I was recently interested in prominently displayed the price as $67.84, but it was difficult to find the "small print" specifying that the cost of shipping is $23.95. All this in order to influence the other person to come to conclusions that he or she might not otherwise come to and which may not be in his or her best interest.




Advertising and marketing stand as silent models not only for how we do business, but for how we often treat one another, as well. I’ve already pointed out some of the deceptions and misdirections advertisers use to influence their readers/viewers/listeners. There are others. For instance they describe similar products in different ways, so that it’s difficult for the prospective buyer to compare them. Or they advertise a product with an attractive low price in order to draw the customer in, at which time the customer discovers that there are drawbacks to the product which can be rectified only by buying a more expensive product (It’s called "bait and switch.") Or they draw you in by advertising a product at a low price and only then do you discover that some essential components are options which add to the price. (On the basis of the principles of "contrast" and "commitment" you are likely to then see the $200 additional cost for the monitor that wasn’t included as an acceptable add-on for a computer that was advertised at $1,099. There are many studies showing that this practice coerces the shopper into a commitment to buy that he or she might otherwise not have made: You are now likely to accept the $1,299 cost, even though you wouldn’t have done so if you had initially seen this particular computer advertised, complete with monitor, for $1,299.

In addition, making the price $1,099 instead of $1,100 is yet another way that advertisers attempt to covertly influence—to fool—you into believing that you’ll be paying less than you actually are. Advertisers know that we have a strong tendency to see $1,100 as a significantly higher price than $1,099, which is why this practice is so universal. In my view, though, these practices are no more or less than larceny.




From an evolutionary perspective, it has not been very long since the days of the "herd"—when there was survival value in doing things because others were doing them and in considering those outside the family or clan as dangerous and treating them with wariness—and of the "alpha male"—when there was survival value in individuals vying for power and rank.

It seems to me that the advent of language has brought about profound and awesome new possibilities that few of us recognise. For example, it is now possible—through dialoguing—to substantially establish and grow trust, to engage in conflict fairly, and to nurture care. These are not only new possibilities, but, given the central presence of language in our lives, compelling and essential ones. In other words, language has given birth and meaning to fairness.

To those who assert that competition is inevitable, I say that this is not because of how people inherently are, but because of the prevailing social structure through which they grow up and continue to have to deal with one another. It seems to me that the solution is not to cling unyieldingly to the competitive model, but to explore ways to transform the cultural givens. 

Dealing effectively with unfairness inevitably requires my being fair, on the one hand, and my engaging in the dialogue on the other. Fairness requires that I eschew trying to control others, that in my dealings with them I intend to inform rather than sell or force. (And it follows that fairness to myself requires that I not try to control or sell myself.) In practice, this means that I operate on the principle of full-disclosure, of the "open- hand." Ironically, this obliges me to risk not getting what I want.

I must urge a caution here. Clearly, not everyone else is trustworthy. It could well be folly to give information to someone who is out to take me. But the remedy is not to be "closed," secretive or deceptive. What’s called for is competence in recognising when someone is and is not trustworthy, in seeking reliable sources of information, in distinguishing which information when revealed might endanger and which might protect, in dialoguing with the people involved, and in recognising when to leave.

I think we’ve all become jaundiced and numbed by the commonplace falseness and dishonesty on the part of those who try to coerce us to get what they want. Nevertheless, I believe there are a number of ways—many of them relatively simple and straightforward—to gain protection from such coercions. Part of the solution is interpersonal, part political, part regulatory.



Towards Fairness 
in Advertising and Selling

I recommend a "truth in advertising and sales" law (with "teeth" in it, backed by a "board of enforcement"), I suggest that it require, among other things:
    • full disclosure. If advertisers or sales people describe the advantages of a product, then that they’re also required to describe the known downside and contraindications of that product.

    • that all the essential information that buyers are likely to need in order to make informed choices be included in advertisements.

    • that what’s described, including the price shown, clearly match what’s pictured. For example, if it’s an advertisement for a computer, and a monitor is pictured, then the price shown must include the monitor.

    • that when the price of a product is shown, the total cost be the most prominently displayed price (with "shipping and handling" already included). And that if the cost of shipping and handling is displayed, it must be shown less prominently, but clearly.

    • that it be clearly indicated when less than a full "system" is being offered. (We would certainly object if an automobile was being offered without it being clearly indicated that it had no engine or steering wheel.)

    • that specifications not be ambiguous. For instance, if two computers are advertised as having 64MB RAM, it would have to be made clear whether they have EDO RAM or SDRAM.

    • that the same specifications be described when several similar products are being exhibited. For instance, in one ad, one computer is described as a "Pentium II with MMX" while the one next to it is described as a "Pentium II with fan. Does the latter also have MMX? If it does, this would have to be stated.

    • that the people who appear in the ads (e.g., in print or on television) be certifiably qualified to make the claims that they make and that they be who they purport to be, not actors. (It irks me that actors make claims about products that—by virtue of education or experience—they are not qualified to make; and that they lie about their involvement with the products—which I’ve heard them confess on quite a number of occasions.)

    • that the full names (rather than just initials) of those who provide testimonials be required, along with how and where to contact them, so that a would-be buyer could dialogue with the testifier in order to make more competent decisions. This, in fact, is what is already happening on the Internet, e.g., in "User Groups."

Codes and Laws

Laws, ethical codes, codes of conduct and etiquette, and the like are attempts to codify and enforce fairness. Although these can never be fully effective—since people can and do break them, and no law or code can deal effectively with every situation—strong enforcement efforts can educate us to our rights, can help make fairness usual, rather than unusual and can encourage us to be assertive in dealing with unfairness.

Some people might object that such practices cannot be regulated without interfering with freedom of speech, but it seems clear to me that freedom of speech is not freedom to deceive. Although I realise that regulating coercive practices might sometimes be difficult—for example, I think it will be difficult to regulate the "99 cent" problem—similar regulating is already in force in the U.S. with regard to selling real estate and drugs.



Responding to Unfairness 
in Advertising and Selling

What we need is a public that is educated about its rights and about deceptive practices, so that it is no longer willing to be victimised by deceptive practices and willing to demand changes from both the sellers and our political representatives, who we can urge to make a code of fair practices. We can form political action groups, and we can lobby our political representatives. We can educate our friends, and learn from them, as well.

We can individually and collectively inform advertisers and sellers of our dissatisfaction with specific unfairness and of our unwillingness to do business with them when they engage in such practices. We can stop doing business there if they don’t comply (and we can let them know that we have indeed chosen to buy elsewhere.) And when we find sellers that sell fairly, we can add them to a list and publicise it, for example, on the Internet.



Towards Fairness 
in Personal Relationships

In our personal dealings with one another, our intention must also be to inform, rather than coerce. For example, if his aim is to get her into bed (or even just to go out with him) by striving to overcome her objections or by lying to her, he might indeed get her into bed (or to agree to a date), but the cost will be considerable: In the face of his unfairness—of his aiming to get what he wants without consideration for what she wants and for what’s in her best interest—her trust in him and in men in general will be diminished. She will become less trustful and more wary, which will ultimately strengthen his view that women are good for only one thing and her view that men only want one thing and can’t be trusted to care. This, in turn, will diminish the possibility that their relationship will be fulfilling and enduring, and that any of their subsequent relationships can be successful.

In personal relationships, then:
    • Strive to be meticulously fair yourself.

    • Strive to be meticulously fair to yourself.

    • Intend to be open, to reveal what’s significant (always with the caveat that you have the right to conceal if you sense that are in danger and that concealing will protect you).

    • Strive to keep your contracts/promises. If you must break a contract, apologise (sincerely), give an explanation and take steps to avoid breaking the contract in the future.

    • In any significant relationship, make the issue of fairness and unfairness a theme of conversation and negotiate beforehand how to deal fairly with any unfairness.

Responding to Unfairness
in Personal Relationships

I think that most of us tend to retreat from facing people who treat us unfairly. Yet our not facing people at these times is the surest way to invite and enable unfairness. It is only through 

dialogue—real-talk—that unfairness can be thematised and realised and effectively dealt with. Only in this way, can you discern whether the other person has intended to be unfair and whether he or she cares about and is willing to minister to your distressed self. Therefore:
    • Tell the other—concretely and without blaming—that how you’re affected when he or she is being unfair ("When you make the decision about where we will go on vacation without consulting me, I feel hurt and angry...")
At this point in my journey, it seems ever more important that we learn to be fair and to require fairness, lest the human species (and, indeed, many other species as well) become a footnote in history.

© 1999 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

See Also...

Dialoguing by Stephen E. Linn
Essay from I Am What I Am! Essays on Relationships

In The News...

Senate Probes Magazine Sweepstakes from CNN

Related Outside Links

Additional Reading about Cooperation and Competition
Chapters 4 and 5 in Radical Psychiatry by Claude Steiner

The Consumer Protection Pyramid: Education:Self-Regulation & Law Enforcement  U.S. Federal Trade Commission

Better Business Bureau Literature

Advertising and the Invention of Postmodernity
Advertising, Deception and Postmodernism

Complete Guide to Ethics Management:
An Ethics Toolkit for Managers

Acting to get what I want without also genuinely considering what you want is unfair. Perhaps less apparent, sacrificing fulfilment of my desires in deference to fulfilment of yours, is also unfair.

Dealing with unfairness inevitably requires my being fair, and my engaging in the dialogue. Fairness requires that I eschew trying to control others, but that I intend to inform rather than sell or force.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

Classes & Workshops
 Send Email

RMT Designs
Design by Robert M. Thomas