Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What a ten-year-old can tell you about social justice

This is the conversation I had with my ten-year-old daughter, Ewa, recently while we were sitting in the car waiting to pick up my wife from work.

Ewa: We talked about fairness at school today.

Me: Aha; and how did it go?

Ewa: This is the story that the teacher told us. Imagine there are three people wanting to watch the fireworks. There is a fence in front of the three people. One of these three people is tall, so he can see over the fence. The second person is of medium height, and he can see over the fence only if he stands on something, like a wooden box. The third person is short, and he can see the fireworks only if he stands on something tall, like two wooden boxes. Now, let's suppose the tall person has three wooden boxes and the other two have none. It would be fair if the tall person gave one box to the medium height person and two boxes to the short person so that all three can see the fireworks.

Me: Ok, and how would they persuade the tall person to give them the boxes?

Ewa: I don't know; they would tell him that they need them because they want to see the fireworks.

Me: What if the tall person is not persuaded and he still wants to keep the boxes, would that be unfair?

Ewa: Well, I don't know.

Me: Ok, do you think it would be fair if the short person and the medium height person tried to take the boxes against the will of the tall person? For example, they beat him up and take the boxes.

Ewa: No, then the government would tell them not to fight over boxes that are on its land.

Me: So, the land on which the event takes place is owned by the government and the boxes are owned by the government?

Ewa: Yes, the land is owned by the government, but the boxes are just some random boxes lying around.

Me: Are you sure you don't know anything more about the boxes; who put then there, who made them etc.?

Ewa: I don't know. The teacher didn't say anything about that, and I just assumed they are some random boxes that no one wants.

Me: Well, the three people in our story all seem to really want them.

Ewa: Look, this is what the teacher told us: It is fair that everyone gets what they need, but they have to make it happen themselves.

Me: Ok, now I know a little bit more about the situation. Would then threatening the tall person that the two other persons would beat him up if he doesn't give up the boxes count as "making it happen themselves"?

Ewa: Well, no. The government wouldn't let them fight.

Me: Could then the two shorter persons go to the government and ask that it take the boxes away from the tall person and that it gives the boxes to them.

Ewa: They can go, but the government doesn't do that.

Me: Sure it does. Remember when the teachers were striking and carrying those banners around. They wanted the government to make laws that give them higher wages and better working conditions. So, in their case, higher wages and better working conditions are like those three boxes for the two shorter persons.

Ewa: Well, I don't know; maybe the government could ask the tall person to give the boxes to the other two.

Me: Suppose the tall person still refuses to give up the boxes. Could the government come, take the boxes, and, after that, beat up the tall person to punish him for being unfair.

Ewa: Well, I guess since it is all happening on government land, the government could take the boxes, but it shouldn't beat up the tall person.

Me: Why not? The government can write a law that requires the tall person to be punished for being unfair and not giving up the boxes.

Ewa: The government wouldn't write laws like that.

Me: Why not? It has in the past. For example, there was a law in Canada that would make me a criminal if I wanted to buy a bottle of wine. I would go to jail.

Ewa: Really? Then the government doesn't always do what's right.

Me: Hmm, interesting thoughts.

By this time, my son, who is three, was getting pretty frustrated by this conversation, so he overtook it by reciting the ABC song as loud as he could. This was probably the ideal moment to leave the conversation where it is and let the ideas simmer in the child's mind.

My hope is that, through this conversation, Ewa learned that the concept of fairness is not as straightforward as initially presented. There are several important and complex concepts that I lead her to grapple with in order to start searching for her own definition of fairness. We dealt with the concepts of property, case history, lobbying and political activism. Finally, we discussed the justness of government actions and laws. For this purpose, I used the learning method that I called--discovery through inquiry.

Discovery through inquiry is important in developing critical thinking skills, which are crucial whenever we deal with moral concepts like fairness or justice. As I show here, many social conflicts arise as a consequence of different understandings of the concept of justice. Letting our children realize that it is not easy to figure out what is just and what is not might help them be more patient when they meet someone with different moral beliefs as adults.

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