Pygmalion: Fairness vs Kindness

Pygmalion: Fairness and Kindness

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.” –(Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, pp. 99-100).

Growing up, I was instilled with a strong sense of both fairness and kindness. Most children are. They are taught to take turns, because it’s only fair that every child gets to play. We encourage tiny tots to share their toys because it’s kind. And often in those lessons, the two seem to go hand in hand.  As we grow older, though, fairness and kindness begin to diverge. We start to realize that being kind isn’t always fair, and being fair doesn’t by any means require being kind. Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion puts the difference between the two traits on center stage in the characters of Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering.

A little background on My Fair Lady

In the play Pygmalion (and the movie adaptation, My Fair Lady) Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering are a pair of confirmed bachelors who share a love of language. At their first meeting under a church portico, Higgins boasts that he could take the poor flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, and pass her off as a duchess just by teaching her to speak proper English. A few days later, Eliza finds Henry Higgins and asks him to teach her, in hopes of bettering her situation in life. Colonel Pickering, remembering Higgins’s boast, offers to finance the classes, and the experiment begins. Higgins determines to teach Eliza proper speech and manners in six months, with the intention of bringing her to the ambassador’s garden party and convincing the world that she is indeed a duchess.

While Eliza stays at Higgins’s home on Wimpole Street, Pickering comes to be her caretaker. He generously provides her with dresses and treats her with respect from the first moment. A gentleman on every count, Pickering’s good manners extend to the poor girl and she learns to act more kindly because of him.

Higgins, however, is a different story. The professor acts rudely and speaks bluntly, not out of meanness, but simply because he’s a blunt person.

At the end of the story, Eliza leaves. When the professor finds her and asks her to come home to Wimpole Street, she responds by confronting Higgins with his lack of kindness.

On Fairness and Kindness:

Higgins: “. . . If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.”
Eliza: “That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.” 
Higgins: “And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.” 
Eliza: “I see. . . The same to everybody.” (pp. 103)

As Eliza expresses her anger toward Higgins, he defends himself not by claiming kindness, but by claiming fairness. He knows that he isn’t the most gentle or attentive of men. But Higgins justifies his behavior by comparison.

“The great secret, Eliza,” he says, “is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.” (pp. 103-104)

Higgins considers himself without fault toward Eliza because he is fair. And he is. The professor speaks to Eliza in the same way he speaks to his mother, which is the same way he speaks to Colonel Pickering, which is the same way he speaks to his housekeeper, or a noble, or a stranger on the street. Very few people can claim fairness as honestly as Professor Higgins can. He values all people the same (even if his manner suggests that he values them less than he ought). And because of this, he gives respect where respect is due and reward where reward is due.

The problem is that Eliza doesn’t wish for fairness. What she wants is a little kindness.

Fairness may say that you’re equal to all others, but kindness says that you yourself matter.

We all in some ways want the world to be fair. We want children to have equal opportunities for education; we want those who work hard to get a fair reward. But when it comes to relationships, fairness isn’t enough. Fairness alone can’t build relationships between us and others because it’s neutral. Unbiased. Fairness says you matter as much as everyone else, but only as much as everyone else. You matter for the same reasons, which is important as a starting place. We do need to recognize that one soul is as good as another. But we can’t stop there. If we do, we can leave others with the impression that they are expendable. One’s as good as another, so who cares which person is around?

People need kindness. Kindness reminds us that we as individuals have worth apart from the crowd. Not only is our soul as good as another’s, but it’s unique from others. Pickering’s kindness made a difference to Eliza Doolittle, not simply because he treated her the same as he treated everyone, but because he treated her well.

“But do you know what began my real education? . . . Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me” -Eliza (pp. 99).

Colonel Pickering helped Eliza to value herself because he treated her with dignity. He spoke gently with her, showed her generosity, and acted as a gentleman. He stood when she entered the room, didn’t take his shoes off when she was there, and held doors open for her. These little acts of kindness, so natural to him, taught Eliza that she herself was valuable. Even though they were attentions he would and did show anyone, they made her feel special. Cared for. Appreciated.

And I’d argue that Pickering’s kindness was even more powerful because it was given without distinction. Eliza trusted Pickering’s kindness because he gave it freely to everyone. His kindness was something to be depended on; not fleeting or reserved for a few.

Perhaps fairness and kindness are strongest when they build on each other. When we recognize impartially that everyone matters, then we give ourselves motivation to treat each other kindly. That kindness, in turn, reminds individuals that they matter, and that they deserve fair treatment from others.

But if I only have the choice of one or the other, I’d choose kindness every time. It was kindness that made a flower girl a lady; it’s kindness that turns a stranger to a friend.


Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. Penguin Books, 1955.

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