Fairness in Love And War

The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.  John Lyly, Euphues, 1578.

All’s fair in love and war, we hear at a tender age.  Though this is tempered by schoolboy concepts of fair play and never hit a man when he’s down.  Fair play is reasonable if you don’t mean to win at any cost and the other guy doesn’t mean to kill you, but all that goes by the board in any genuine confrontation. more

Does ethics describe key ultimate wants, or only minor wants, and social norms and signals which instrumentally help us achieve key wants?  Consider the saying “All is fair in love and war.”  It is often quoted, and rarely does a listener respond “Not it’s not.”  Yet folks also often complain loudly about unfairness.  Taken together, these suggest that for most, fairness is largely instrumental.

Those who embrace this saying suggest that a threat of military defeat, and perhaps extermination, would overwhelm most other considerations.  Similarly, they suggest that the threat of not attracting a hoped-for mate also overwhelms most other considerations.

Setting love alongside war as a similar reason to ignore fairness is quite telling.  Wars have often ended extremely, with total victory or total defeat.  But if you don’t attract a particular desired lover, you might well attract a lover nearly as good.  Those who equate the harm of getting their second favorite mate, vs. their favorite mate, with the harm of losing vs. winning a war, seem to say that mate quality is overwhelming important.  Little matters nearly as much – certainly not fairness (or racism).

Added 11Aug2010: This page has been translated into Belorussian.

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  • There’s a more obvious point about that saying, here: love and war are two things very directly tied to Darwinian fitness. It’s easy to write off the former as being about slight differences in mate quality, but as Roissy has said, (complete) celibacy is walking death.

    The maxim can thus be translated be given the following evo-psych translation: fairness is only a good rule of thumb to follow when the impact of your actions on your Darwinian fitness is otherwise unclear.

    • Jonas

      but why should the maxim be to defect?

      Maybe group Solidarity is driven by fairness and being part of a group always helps your Darwinian fitness.

      Is fairness = cooperation ?

  • Eric Falkenstein

    A principle is a rule you apply even to your own disadvantage, and it seems about as rare as sexual abstinence. Lawyers have no principles, they are explicit advocates for hire, conveniently highlighting the meta-effect of zealous advocacy. Lawmakers are generally lawyers, and just as partisan. Businessmen argue for less regulation, and protection from competitors. Scientists are all about their objective method, though I haven’t known many objective scientists. Now you bring up the ‘all is fair’ quote, highlighting in permeates our private lives too. I suppose the only response is to find human hypocrisy funny, rather than sad.

  • Gary

    After reading Robin, anyone else feel like Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabees when the existential detectives play a tape of him over-telling the story about Shania Twain and the mayonnaise?

    There is a fix, though, so don’t despair if you’ve transmogrified into an ineffectual signaller.

  • Michael

    It’s a for-whatever-reason pleasing witticism, but would hardly survive reflection by most sane people. I’d guess that the poetic vision captured by the saying is the tragi-comic recognition that the game of love is just as much a game played between rival lovers as between a lover and the beloved. But I doubt that anyone seriously thinks that, eg., it would be morally okay to poison a rival. This is not true with war, where I assume that many morally serious people believe that it would be morally permissible to, say, torture a young child for the sake of saving a million, or ten million, or a billion lives (everything, past some limit, has a price).

    But I don’t see how your point about fairness being instrumental follows. I can’t think of the name of the heuristic right now, but it’s well demonstrated that monkeys and humans alike will prefer a sub-optimal outcome over an optimal outcome that violates some or other innate sense of fairness. We might at the very least want to distinguish between local and global instrumentality: I have a sense of fairness which, when applied locally, sometime trumps my own and the group’s welfare, but then acknowledge that natural selection has favored organisms with this local hang-up because, globally, we are better adapted. In other words, our sense of fairness is locally often non-instrumental, even if its global instrumentality is the reason organisms like us are around in the first place.

  • Phil

    At the time, it certainly doesn’t feel like you’ll be able to attract a mate almost as good. Robin, are you married? If your mate left you, would you shrug and figure that you could find someone just as good to replace her?

  • All’s fair in love and war isn’t actually a normative statement. People get quite outraged by how they are treated by lovers and spouses. It’s more of a descriptive statement and a warning: people will ignore morality in matters romantic, so expect them to treat you badly.

    I suspect it is phrased as a normative statement to make it more memorable.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Love hurts, and people make binary demands of their lovers. There’s no graceful way to break up with someone, or to cheat on them. There are graceful ways of degrading other types of relationships, and so people are expected to use them (eg calling less and less, rather than proclaiming “I never want to see you again”).

    “All’s fair in Love” seems to me an admission that you will be hurt in love, and you will hurt others in love, and that there will be nothing much the hurter can do to make it ‘fairer’ or more gentle for the hurtee, at least at the time.

    “All’s fair”, only because love can never be fair, so we have to resign ourselves somewaht to this.

    • michael vassar

      I don’t think that the above is the point of the quote, but it’s certainly a very good point. Much more interesting than the quote, though less pithy.

  • Th Geneva Convention specifically makes it clear that all *isn’t* fair in war. Similarly, there are an awful lot of things that would be considered unfair if used in competition for love (murder being the most obvious… there are others). In other words, I don’t think anyone actually believes that “all’s fair in love and war”, so this discussion is probably moot.

  • anon

    I agree with Chris and Phil: for a variety of reasons, we often do not regard love as merely about marginal changes in mate quality. However, it should be noted that recent military conflicts have been more and more tempered by ethical considerations. As we become wealthier and more knowledgeable about matters romantic, we’ll probably demand less racism, more sportsmanship and better signaling games in love as well, as we have in other activities.

  • Fairness matters extremely in a peace-time economy, as it is a precursor for private investment decisions and is a major factor in labor productivity.

    Schiller/Akerlof discuss this at length, and it is easy to translate their views beyond labor participation/productivity in poor black communities.

  • josh

    How much can game theory explain about the way we conduct love and war? In war, both sides limit themselves to avoid mutually assured destruction unless a permanent advantage can be obtained by violating the acceptable codes of conduct. Pre-commited third parties help enforce these limitations.

  • It might be useful to keep in mind that what is viewed as “unfair” in each is quite different, indeed orders of magnitude different. What is “unfair” in love is stuff like lying to somebody. What is “unfair” in war is torturing prisoners and killing large masses of people with horrible weapons.

  • bock

    Just a hop, skip and a jump from: “Nothing is true, all is allowed.”

  • Your Lyly quote is from 1578. Wars at that time did not tend to end in the complete defeat of one side. Until 1918, wars within Europe usually ended in a treaty that preserved the independence and most of the territory of the losing side; and they were not fought with anything like the full resources that in principle would have been available to a militarised state. The limited dynastic wars of early-modern Europe are quite a different affair from the total wars of recent times, and the consequences of losing one much more comparable to losing one’s favoured mate – at least in the analogy of state to person.

  • You gotta know when to pick your fights ladies and gentlemen. Who’s to say what is fair.

  • Rob
  • jsmith

    Why assume the fairness is limited to the lovers? For me, I think to myself “all is fair..” every time I think of my girlfriend’s husband.

  • Psychohistorian

    I think you may be mistaking the use of fairness in this context. Given that there were rather significant rules governing the proper conduct of warfare (and, for that matter, love) during the 16th century, it’s extremely unlikely the original author of the quote intended to claim that any means used in love or war was justifiable.

    It seems more likely that this is an observation rather than a moral dictum. If you lose at love or war, it is quite useless to claim that the victor succeeded through unfair means; you’ve still lost. This makes far more sense with our current (and past) values. It’s wrong for terrorists to use biochemical weapons, but they still can, and we still have to deal with it and try to stop them. It does no good to get hit with a biochemical attack and then protest, “But that’s cheating!”

    As much as you might like it to be, the quote does not seem intended to endorse any action on behalf of someone who is at war or is in love. That might have nice evo-psych implications, but virtually no one genuinely believes this, even if they do acknowledge that if your opponent breaks the rules, you need to have an actual response, not a moral objection.

  • BitingTruth

    I think most everyone here surprisingly misses the point of the quote, then they go on to justify their ‘bias” with the pillars of bias like Darwin. John Lyly, Euphues…this writing known as “Euphemism”…hello? The subtitle is the “Anatomy of Wit”. We are told “at a tender age” euphemistically that “all is fair in love and war”. So, tell me…where is the euphemism? The irony? Tell me what else is there…but “love and war”? The statement is to suggest irony in the concept of fairness being applied selectively. The truism suggested is that “fairness” and thus “justice” do not exist in “this world” (of his time…coming out of the “dark ages”). It is not “in support” of unfairness, but rather the opposite. It is a slap in the face of the so called ‘philosophers” who see themselves as “rational” and “fair”. Stop reading literature and philosophy “literally” as if you are reading the Bible in Kansas.

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