The difference between unfairness and injustice, and why it matters

My last post was about evidence for abuse in Hacker News’s ranking system, but I’ve also written at length on the failings of human organizations, in addition to the moral collapse of the venture-funded ecosystem (VC-istan). Having written a lot about social justice issues, and having been attacked personally for doing so, requires that I draw attention to a critical difference, which is that between unfairness and injustice. They are not two words for the same thing, and the differences between them are relevant to all of the social justice debates surrounding the startup and software ecosystems (and, perhaps, to work in general) cannot be ignored.


Unfairness exists. There’s some amount of it that can never be made to go away, especially because perfect fairness is impossible to define. Some people are born with advantages, and others are not. It’s just a fact of life. Children learn about unfairness early on and many complain when they realize just how overwhelmingly much unfairness the world has. “Life isn’t fair,” the adults say. The message is: get over it. On unfairness in the abstract, getting over it is the healthiest thing that one can do. Like death, there is no escaping it. Some people are rich and others are poor. Some are smart, others are dumb. Some are attractive, others are ugly. Then there are the unfairnesses that emerge from chance later in life, that can be impossible to decompose into luck vs. skill factors because of the strategic complexity. Some people have chance encounters that others don’t, but is that skill (in searching) or luck? Who knows? Sometimes, a business that ought to succeed fails, or vice versa. One can think of unfairness as like an impersonal error term– in other words, a noise factor– in the world. It’s not a good thing, but it’s inevitable and any zero-tolerance policy toward unfairness (especially the natural kind) will have side effects more undesirable than the unfairness itself.

That’s not to say that fairness isn’t important, and that people shouldn’t strive for a fairer world. They should, but there’s a tradeoff in most social problems between efficiency and fairness. More regulated arrangements are fairer, but impose drag and might (at the extreme) make everyone poorer. Less-regulated social arrangements that do not impose fairness constraints are often more efficient, but inequitable. I’m not going to go, at length, into the matter of how to find the best point on the fairness-efficiency spectrum. I will make the remark that while maximizing efficiency often allows unfairness (especially in the short term) there are plenty of unfairnesses that detract from efficiency.


Injustice is an execrable subclass of unfairness. Natural unfairness– diseases, disasters, and accidents of birth– aren’t injustices in the political sense (which I will use) because no human is responsible for them. Shit just happens. Additionally, unfairness that emerges from true human accident isn’t injustice– only error.

Rather, injustice occurs when humans increase unfairness, either through cowardice or malicious intent. When people are brought down by bad luck, that’s unfair. When they are kept down by social stigma and others’ moral weakness, that’s unjust. Why do people commit injustice? There are a number of reasons, but the cause behind most intentional injustice is that is an expression of power; in fact, the way humans typically define power is in terms of the ability to inflict social injustice on other people, or to grant improper favors.

I can’t be sure of this, but I suspect that one of the reasons why injustice is so common in the human world is that, for the people at the highest levels of power, it’s actually addictive. People enjoy out-of-band power in beneficial and harmless forms (fast computers, automobiles, fireworks) but there are many who get a thrill from the damaging kind. Obviously, there are few people (even among the most corrupt) who get up in the morning and say, “I’m going to inflict social injustice today”. It’s more accurate to say that they love The Game. We all have our version of The Game; for me, it’s the cutting edge of technology and computation; for them, it’s human politics without regularization. A just victory means that one worked harder or played better or maybe was just a bit lucky; but an unjust victory is a sure sign of high social status. To many people, the latter is more enjoyable.

The importance of the difference

People who complain about unfairness are ignored or despised. They’re seen as insufferable whiners who raise a stink about issues that, like bad weather and death, no one can do anything about. So, people learn in childhood that they’re not supposed to complain about life’s intrinsic unfairness, that it’s depressing and obnoxious to do so. So they don’t. Unfortunately, most take this further and refuse to complain about the frank injustice that they observe around them. Since injustice comes from human origins, and usually malignant intent, this is the wrong strategy. Nothing can be done about the abstract but inflexible fact that life’s unfair in many ways, but things can– and absolutely should– be done about human injustice.

This is one of my moral problems with the current Silicon Valley elite. They espouse a libertarian worldview that, while it need not embrace unfairness per se, values individual freedom highly while accepting a large degree of unfairness. That’s fine. It’s not inconsistent, and while I disagree with them on how they trade efficiency off against unfairness (I tend to think that unfairness produces inefficiency for a long time before it is realized to be doing so) I don’t think they are morally defective for thinking a different way about the matter; they might be right. How much regularization society needs to operate at its best is an open problem. I cannot say the same for the increasing number who tolerate injustice. For that, there is no excuse.

Why I am so certain that Silicon Valley is following (and quite rapidly doing so) the crooked, downward moral paths of those supposedly benighted elites it claims to be replacing? The celebration and tolerance of injustices, especially pertaining to the advantages that come from connections to its parochial king-makers– those connections would be meaningless in a meritocracy– is the primary sign. When a group of people develops an entrenched upper class, there is a larger set who feel an irresistible urge to associate with these winners (it becoming nearly impossible to defeat them) and who begin to rationalize the injustices coming from above. It’s not unethical management and reckless firing; it’s a “lean startup” that “fails fast”.  That’s where the VC-funded ecosystem is now. It has gone beyond tolerance of the (morally acceptable, in my view) unfairness attendant to differing economic outputs and noisy returns; it now accepts the injustice inherent in being a “who you know” oligarchy– a feudal reputation economy driven by personal introduction and favor trading, because the supposed thirst for talent is purely marketing copy– instead of a “what you know” meritocracy.

Is it worthwhile to complain about such injustices? That’s a hard question to answer. Obviously, I think the answer is “yes”, and not because I intend to change it. The people who are running this game have already shown who they are, and that’s by building something so ugly while they had the power. They will not be convinced to be otherwise. However, like all elites, they will become complacent and be replaced by something else, and that will cause opportunities to form. Long before we rise up and take those opportunities, we must study the failures of our predecessors in order not to repeat their mistakes.

Regarding the anger toward VC-istan, that I have chronicled but also directed, that’s why I do what I do. I want the next phase of technological innovation to be superior. I wouldn’t be writing if I didn’t consider that both important and quite feasible.