November 17, 2020 - 11:50am

Nice guys finish last…or do they? David Bodanis thinks they don’t – or at least, in the long term, it’s more often the bad guys bringing up the rear. In his new book ‘The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean,’ the writer argues that there are two ways to succeed.

Firstly, as we’re all too familiar with: by a will to power, through division and fear. Bodanis’s extended essay on Josef Goebbels unpacks this path, though readers will think of contemporary examples.

Secondly, through fairness, exemplified by three characteristics of listening to those around you, giving generously, and defending the good (i.e. being savvy enough not to be taken for a ride). Franklin D. Roosevelt is the extended case study for this approach, not least because he and Goebbels were contemporaries.

Bodanis spells out why Goebbels’s unfairness (not to mention his inhuman indecency) eventually sowed the seeds of his downfall; for example, by driving Jewish and Polish scientists, and therefore key breakthroughs like penicillin, into the arms of the Allies. By contrast, Roosevelt’s legacy lives on to this day and he is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest presidents.

Other stories of fairness-driven success in the book, from heroic pilots to debutante-turned militia leaders, show that fairness isn’t the same as niceness. Many were personally gruff or grumpy, though civil, and none were naïve. Neither were they saints, and Bodanis is careful to point out where they failed to live up the standards of fairness — like Roosevelt interning Japanese citizens during World War II.

What they share is character, borne out of repeatedly choosing the more virtuous path.

Bodanis is careful not to push too hard on the causes behind these choices. In the main, he lets the stories speak for themselves. My guess, however, is that Bodanis (perhaps reluctantly) has concluded that our great religious traditions hold at least part of the answer for living a fair life.

But here we come to a familiar conundrum, because most people in the West now don’t believe in the metaphysics underlying these traditions, or the authority of the books they rest on. If you don’t believe there is a transcendent justice, a source of fairness (who listens, gives and defends the good) behind the universe, then you need to pursue fairness and decency for its own sake.

That’s a praiseworthy, noble and difficult path. On the other hand, Bodanis implies, though never quite says, that you might have a better shot if you believe, like Roosevelt did, that all that lasts is “Faith, hope and charity…” and see them as ”constraints no mortal should dare to break”.

In an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world, it’s more important than ever that we, at the very least, bear this message in mind and keep faith in the power of fairness.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield