We all want to be treated fairly. I don’t think anyone thinks, “I sure wish people would treat me unfairly.” Fairness is a big deal. With fairness comes harmony, and with harmony comes happiness and success. Thus, fairness is something we cannot neglect.
But if we want others to treat us fairly, we have to first treat others fairly. That’s why the Golden Rule states, “treat others the way you want to be treated,” and “do not do unto others what you do not wish for yourself.”
I used to think that fairness is all about logic and equality, but recently, my mentor said something that changed my perspective. He said:
“Fair and reasonable treatment should accord with sentiment, logic, and rules. But there’s an order of priority to them. Rules can be trumped by logic, and logic can be trumped by sentiment. At least, that’s the order of priority in traditional Chinese culture. Do you know why we prioritize sentiment first?”
I thought about it and said,
“Well, rules are meant to help govern a group of people, right? But rules can’t cover every single situation, so sometimes we need to use reasoning to make exceptions. Sentiment can trump logic because leaders originally make rules to benefit the people, to make the people happy. If we are too strict about logic, people will feel like we are cold and uncaring, and if we blindly enforce rules, people will feel wrongfully treated, so sentiment trumps both of them. That’s all I can think of at the moment. Is there more to it?”
My mentor replied,
“There isn’t one right answer, and your view is certainly acceptable. I might put it more simply and relate it back to ourselves. If we always emphasize rules and logic, do you think we will have happy relationships? When others see us, they will probably try to avoid us. So if we want happy relationships and a happy life, we have to put human sentiment above logic and rules.”
I reflected on myself, and I am a very logic-driven person. Much of my conflict with others is because I prioritize logic over sentiment. In other words, I often think about “right and wrong” or “reasonable and unreasonable” instead of other people’s feelings.
For example, if others have a fault or bad habit, I would criticize them for being “wrong” or “unreasonable”, which then hurts their feelings. If I prioritized sentiment, I would advise them from an attitude of care and respect, and my expression and tone of voice would naturally be soft and encouraging. In this way, I wouldn’t offend them or hurt their feelings.
Another situation is when others complain about me. My first instinct is to debate the logic of their criticism, and I usually argue that they didn’t understand my situation correctly, that they should confirm the facts before criticizing. Even though I might win the argument, the mere fact that I make an argument out of it creates cracks in the relationship.
If I prioritized sentiment, that is prioritizing harmony and goodwill in relationships, then I wouldn’t be so defensive and assert that I am right. Even if it is a wrongful criticism, I would apologize simply because I must have done something to make them unhappy or cause them to misunderstand me. I don’t want to make enemies or make others unhappy, so naturally I should apologize. I need to work on prioritizing sentiment and having a more sensitive heart.
My mentor’s advice also reminds me of a story from the book Liao Fan’s Four Lessons:
Zicheng Yang, from Zhejiang province, is another example [of a person who received good fortune from cultivating virtues]. He worked in the county courthouse and was a kind, humane, and law-abiding man.
Once, the country magistrate punished a criminal by beating him until his blood spilled out onto the ground. Zicheng knelt and pleaded with him to stop beating the prisoner.
The infuriated magistrate retorted, “It’s all right for you to plead, but how can I not be angry when he has broken the law!”
Zicheng replied, “When even those in government positions of prestige and power are corrupted and do not follow the righteous path, how can one expect the common people to abide by laws and orders? Also, extreme beating can force an innocent suspect to plead guilty. Thus, in a case like this, we should be more understanding.”
The magistrate was quite touched by Zicheng’s speech and ceased the beating.
Although Zicheng’s came from a very poor family, he never took any bribes. If the prisoners were short of food, he would take some from his own home to give it to them, even if it meant going hungry himself. One day, it was time for several newly arrived prisoners to be fed. But Zicheng himself had little food. If he gave the prisoners what he had, his family would go hungry; if he kept the food for his family, the prisoners would starve.
He discussed it with his wife, who asked where the prisoners were from. He said they came from Hangzhou, and they walked a long distance here, and their bodies were emaciated from the journey. Hence, they used their rice to cook porridge for the prisoners.
Later, Zicheng had two sons, both of whom held important government positions. His eldest grandson became the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Justice, and his second grandson was a highly placed member of the government staff in Sichuan province. They too were prominent. Today, one of their descendants, also a government official, is known for his virtuous deeds.
From this story, we can see that Zicheng was an extremely fair and reasonable person. How so? He prioritized sentiment. The magistrate might argue that beating the prisoner is fair because the prisoner violated the law, but most people would praise Zicheng for being even more fair because he prioritized sentiment.
Some people might think it’s perfectly reasonable to feed our own family instead of prisoners, who are strangers. But Zicheng being someone who prioritizes sentiment naturally has a compassionate heart. When he sees starving prisoners, he can’t help but feel sad for them. No one would criticize you for feeding your family first, since it accords with logic, but no one would admire or praise you either. People admired, praised, and wanted to help Zicheng because he prioritized sentiment and compassion.
Other people know that doing good deeds will bring good fortune, but then they become greedy for doing good deeds. Such a person might see the hungry prisoners and offer the family’s food without consulting his wife, or force family members to accept their ideas. When the wife complains, he might say, “Don’t be so miserly! I’m doing a good deed!” Not only is this neglecting human sentiment, it’s actually selfishness and greediness for fame. Zicheng had true compassion, so he naturally thought to consult with his wife first and only gave food away after receiving her support.
Like parents, like children. The parents’ virtuous role modeling resulted in virtuous and successful descendants who brought wealth and glory to the family. Zicheng’s story is a great illustration of why and how to prioritize sentiment over logic and rules.
Fair treatment towards people is not just about logic and rules. Rules can be trumped by logic, and logic can be trumped by sentiment. If we prioritize rules and logic, we might create conflict and resentment. If we prioritize sentiment, then we will have good fortune and happy relationships. Sentiment, logic, and rules, which do you prioritize?