Fairness and empathy

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Fairness and empathy

The author is an international news team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“Woo Young-woo is the strong one. Don’t you understand?”

This is a line from the seventh episode of the popular drama “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” After the protagonist, a genius who has autism spectrum disorder, manages to finally land a job, a fellow lawyer gets angry and shouts that her employment was rigged.

Then, the male lawyer says, “This game is not fair. Woo Young-woo beats us every time, but we shouldn’t attack her. Why not? Because she is autistic. We have to be considerate, help and give up the last seat left in the car. Is she really vulnerable? That’s an illusion.”

Here it comes again: the word “fair.” Fairness is the most powerful and common word in Korean society today. The last few administration changes were made under the banner of fairness, and in every major election, the fairness agenda has been a winning strategy. Fairness has become almost the only standard for solving every problem in our society. The value has become the last bastion that should never be crossed.

The dictionary definition of fairness is “impartial and just.” Fairness becomes complete by combining the impartiality of not leaning to any side with the ethical judgment of justness.

Fairness with those two standards often becomes an invincible logic. Those who shout “unfair” accuse the other of violating the “rigor of equality” soon followed by criticism for being “immoral.” Even the protagonist, lawyer Woo, becomes silent when she is attacked for not being “fair.”

Is it true that fairness is a noble value that must be upheld? In his book “Wonderworks: The 25 most powerful inventions in the history of literature,” Angus Fletcher, a neuroscientist and literary writer, wrote that our brains are wired with the desire for fairness. Fairness is not some higher-order philosophy that humans acquired with reason, but an innate desire that even chimpanzees and gorillas have, he argues.

Fairness is also a very strong neurological need. An obsession with fairness often results in mass violence or cruel punishment on social levels — and isolation and hatred on personal levels.

A balancing weight to counter the negative effect of fairness is “empathy.” Empathy pertaining to the cerebral cortex helps accept an apology and identify extenuating factors. The author advises that society can be maintained when the inner scale of fairness and empathy is balanced. That’s why the voice of empathy should be as loud as the outcry for fairness.
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