Many rely on the phrases "Life isn't fair" and "It is what it is" to defend unethical, unfair actions. But what could these mean, if anything?

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To help us cope with life’s inevitable setbacks and injustices, we have developed certain aphoristic tidbits. Displayed often on bumper stickers and t-shirts, these include such sayings as, “It is what it is,” or the French version, “C’est la vie.

It also includes the PG-13 rendering of another, “Stuff Happens” (seen on bumper stickers as “Cacca Occurreth”), and “Life isn’t fair.” They serve as potential coping strategies if, for example, someone cuts us off in the lineup at the off-ramp exit or some other transgression. “Life isn’t fair, so he can cut me off after I’ve been here waiting. It is what it is.” 

But a concern arises when we employ such idioms—especially “Life isn’t fair” (LIF)—in defense of certain unethical, unfair practices as if asserting an enduring truism about “life” in general. 

I frequently and happily engage in conversation, discussion, and debate on various philosophical issues, sports ethics in particular. To my chagrin, upon reaching an apparent stalemate in a disagreement on the ethical nature of a particular action in sport, I occasionally encounter the aphoristic nuisance, LIF. It’s usually preceded by some sort of conciliatory, “Whelp,” or, “Oh well.” If I push back a bit, I find this ilk also tends to be fond of the conversational showstopper, the equally vacuous, “It is what it is.”

This one-two punch was performed at a youth water polo tournament I attended. One of the athletes was clearly playing dirty and the father of the boy defended the behavior to disgruntled parents in the stands. At one point, in response to a parent commenting as to the unfairness and wrongness of this boy punching other players underwater, the father retorted, “Whelp, life isn’t fair,” and, about 30 seconds later, as if on cue, “It is what it is.”

On a larger scale, we see the LIF-“argument” cutting both ways. As a bit of context, in the 2014 O’Bannon v. NCAA case, a District Judge ruled the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law; as a result, college athletes should be entitled to compensation for commercial use of their image. This ruling came to fruition in July, 2021, allowing athletes to sell their names, image, and likeness.

Debates regarding fairness ensued. Message boards, bloggers, and sports fans repeatedly touted the LIF mantra defending their position. The catch being, both sides used it to bolster their argument: Life isn’t fair, so we don’t need to compensate athletes for what they deserve; Life isn’t fair, so universities should relinquish some of their own revenue to athletes.

 “Life isn’t fair” reveals a complete misunderstanding of ethics, be it in the sporting world or otherwise. To use a stark analogy, when people were enslaved simply because of their origin and skin color, it would have been unreasonable to say, “Whelp, life isn’t fair. It is what it is.” While true it wasn’t fair (to say the least), the thoughtful citizen instead examines further, “Hey, this circumstance of life isn’t fair. We should demonstrate why and then change the system to make it fair because we desire fairness whenever possible.”

If you’re not keen on the application and use of analogy, we can aim our lens at real-life instances within sport and apply it to any of the greatest sports cheats of all time: a boxer removing the padding from his gloves turning his fists into plaster to pummel his opponent into near-blindness; a soccer player deceptively punching the ball into the goal with his fist to win a World Cup semifinal game; jumping out of the crowd at a marathon to finish in first place in record-breaking time, no less. For those touting the LIF mantra, here’s your opportunity to test it out—“So she jumped out at the end to win a marathon she didn’t actually run: Oh well, life isn’t fair.”

It’s hard to know what “Life isn’t fair” even means, if anything.

One can only imagine it serves to remind us we don’t all have exactly the same opportunities to achieve various objectives. In that sense, it’s likely the most boringly obvious statement ever uttered—aside from “It is what it is,” which can only mean things are…um…the way they are.

Imagine what it would mean for the antithesis of LIF to be true. Following some exactly equitable event, people would proclaim, “Whelp, life is exactly fair.” What would it mean for “life” to be fair? Is it that we’d all be born exactly the same, with an exactly identical genetic composition, born into exactly similar socio-economic situations? Only then would “life” be fair? This seems outrageous at best. Given that this can’t be the case, the “isn’t fair” version doesn’t hold much water.

So we can only assume these phrases convey something figurative, helping us to understand some nuance of the human condition which can inform our standards and actions. Maybe, then, LIF advocates some naturalistic moral imperative: because nature isn’t inherently fair, we shouldn’t try to impart fairness on the world. This, though, halts any semblance of moral progress. It’s a justification for moral laziness. The rhetorical insight here is that any attempt to change the unfair state of affairs is either unnecessary or, stronger, impossible.

When discussing and defending a position, one typically offers premises in defense. In a debate about flopping in soccer one might claim, “Flopping wrongly punishes the defender,” with the obvious implication, “One shouldn’t wrongly punish people, so it’s unethical.” But if one were one to suggest, “Life isn’t fair,” as a premise of the argument, the only possible implication would be, “Wrongly punishing people may be unfair but, because life isn’t fair, then soccer doesn’t need to be either, so flopping isn’t unethical.”

If to be taken at face value and as patently true, LIF serves as a great example of a non sequitur. And if done intentionally, it functions as a red herring employed to throw the pursuer of the truth off the scent. Here’s the strategy: when involved in a discussion in which your flimsy position is under siege, assertively declare a truism as though it somehow supports your position: “Some athletes use steroids and have an advantage others don’t? Whelp, life isn’t fair.” Or, “Sometimes people pay referees to favor their team? Whelp, the sky is blue.”

“Life isn’t fair” can serve as a way of life in the way “c’est la vie” does for some, but not as a basis for defending unfair actions. 

“Life isn’t fair” can serve as a way of life in the way “c’est la vie” does for some, but not as a basis for defending unfair actions.  

Regardless of all of these problems, sport provides us with a different sort of venue than “life.” The sporting arena is a contrived system of obstacles and rules, unlike the natural obstacles (if they are such) and playing fields (if you will) provided by “life.” As such, we can manipulate them. We can attempt to make them fair. Sport can truly embody what we want out of life, while still not straying from life itself.

In youth sports, for example, we create separate age groups in order to have children compete against their developmentally matched peers. High school sports leagues designate divisions because they recognize, out of fairness, that a school with 10,000 students has a greater draw for their sports teams than does a school of 500 students.

The ideal competition is fair. And in sport, we can come quite close to reaching that ideal. When we conduct the 400-meter dash we go to great pains to make it fair. Everyone starts at the same time and runs exactly the same distance. At major events, we even test the athletes’ blood to make sure they’re not getting an unfair advantage in that department, as we recently saw in the unfortunate case of the 2022 Winter Olympics figure skating. The runners must stay in their lanes, being sure not to touch another runner. Were we to employ the LIF approach, we’d have runners starting at different places or tripping each other. But we don’t. In sport, we can actually come close to achieving fairness.

We desire fairness, inherently. Studies show that we become visibly upset (and also at a neurological level) by unfairness and are even willing to sacrifice our own gain to prevent others from acquiring something unfairly. So when you feel the inclination to utter the LIF mantra, take a deep breath. It might be the case that you’re more interested in defending your respective position. Instead, look to see if the particular action really is unfair. It may even be something that can be fixed, or at least you can change your own actions given the insight garnered.

And before you proclaim, “It is what it is,” try uttering “The sky is blue” instead. Even if it’s cloudy, you’ll still be right for the most part, and we won’t have to let unfairness continue simply because it is what it is.

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The author of 5 books, including Amazon Top-500, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times. Spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe. Graduated from Stanford...