Justice vs. Fairness

I’ve seen the following anecdote in a number of versions of Sidney Morgenbesser’s obituary:

He joined his students in an anti-police demonstration during the 1968 student unrest at Columbia. The police broke it up with a baton charge, and Morgenbesser got hit over the head. The experience led to one of his most quoted but least revealing bons mots.

No, this isn't Boris Karloff, it's actually Sidney Morgenbesser He was asked whether the police had treated him unjustly or unfairly. “Unfairly yes, unjustly no,” he said. “It was unfair to be hit over the head but not unjust since they hit everyone else over the head, too.”

This struck me as just the wrong way around. Equal treatment all around might plausibly be considered fair, but if that treatment involves aggression then it’s certainly unjust.

Anyway, I’m pleased to see that Morgenbesser was misquoted; Gil Harman informs us that Morgenbesser really said the reverse of what the obituaries quoted:

He actually said the opposite: “It was unjust but not unfair. It was unjust for them to hit me over the head, but it was not unfair since they hit everybody else over the head.”

Hooray! Morgenbesser’s honour has been saved.

(Of course I still disagree with Morgenbesser; as I’ve argued elsewhere, aggression can never really be equal treatment, and so injustice in fact always involves unfairness though not necessarily vice versa – so the cops were being unfair in addition to being unjust. But this convicts Morgenbesser only of a subtle mistake, not the gross mistake that the obituaries saddled him with.)

3 Responses to Justice vs. Fairness

  1. Daniel J. D'Amico February 27, 2007 at 7:44 pm #


    Friday is Murray’s birthday and Saturday Molinari’s. What would you vote as the most Molinarian film of all time?


  2. Lester Hunt February 28, 2007 at 5:34 pm #

    Rod, thanks for this information. I’ve always told the story with the correction silently made, but this is the first time I’ve seen that there is actual ear-witness testimony that my correction is correct.

    It never made any sense to tell it as the Times reported it.

    It always gets a laugh from students and makes a point in a memorable way.

  3. Administrator March 2, 2007 at 6:11 pm #

    Most Molinarian film? Hard to say, but there are some good possibilities here.

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