Americans today are preoccupied with what's fair.

It wouldn't be fair, some say, to exclude the richest Americans from an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

It wouldn't be fair, say others, to give the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country a path to citizenship.

And of course, for years affirmative-action programs that help erase the vestiges of past discrimination have been derided as unfair.

Well you know what? The world isn't fair. Not always anyway. But fair shouldn't even be the goal. Good is always better than fair on any report card I've seen.

As a nation, we should want to be good, not merely fair. And being good sometimes means making unpalatable choices that place the benefit of the whole above the interests of the few.

So good should be our goal, but what is good? People have been trying to answer that question since Plato took a stab at it in ancient Greece. Note that he didn't think a democracy was capable of making that determination, which he said should be left to the highest thinkers.

But a democracy is what we have, and we the people can figure it out, given time and the will. It's really not that difficult. People know what's right, but self-interest always intrudes.

Let's look at the tax cuts. There's this canard that if the tax cuts end for those making $250,000 or more a year, small businesses across America will go belly-up. Not true. Some small businesses will be affected, but many will be able to find tax relief in other ways.

No one wants to pay higher taxes than they did the year before. But again there's that question of the collective good; that is, what's best for the nation at this particular point in time?

Billionaire Warren Buffet gets that. He says it's a shame that his accountants know how to work the tax code so that he has the lowest tax rate among everyone in his office. He wouldn't mind losing a tax cut to benefit the less affluent.

"A rising tide has lifted all yachts, but the rowboats have been left behind," Buffett said.

That doesn't mean he wants the government to be a spendthrift that would rather tax than budget wisely. It means he understands that when a country is coming out of a recession with high unemployment, those who are able to sacrifice for others should.

Call it unfair to the rich to deny them the same tax cuts given to the lower classes. But that's the sacrifice they're being asked to make, a sacrifice many of them will be able to easily overcome.

Unfortunately, too few among the affluent, are standing up like Buffett, Bill Gates, and Ted Turner to acknowledge that. And the Republican leadership exploits the silence for political purposes by appealing to Americans' sense of fairness. Fair is fine, but what about what's good?

Consider immigration reform. In a perfect world, all 12 million or more illegal immigrants in this country would pack their bags, say sorry for the intrusion, and return to their homelands so they can apply for legal residency.

But the Bible tells us there's never been anything perfect about this world other than Jesus Christ. And he's left this dilemma for those of us still under the sun to figure out. So what should we do?

To allow illegal immigrants to be treated the same as the millions of others who went through the proper legal requirements to become U.S. residents hardly seems fair.

But there is no means to deport all of the illegal immigrants in this country. And most of them - many with decent jobs and thriving families - are unlikely to voluntarily leave even under the best of circumstances.

There have been good proposals before Congress to handle the situation as best as it can be handled. Those proposals include a way for illegal immigrants to make some restitution for having broken our immigration laws so they can then live here legally and one day even apply for citizenship.

Fair? Maybe not, but it's a good solution. Unfortunately, partisan political interests focus on the admitted inequity of such plans without giving adequate credit to how much better off this nation will be once it has successfully dealt with the legal status of 12 million of its people. That's right, its people. They're not going anywhere else.

As for affirmative action, I don't think you can argue that it is always fair. That doesn't mean all African Americans have been made whole. You can still trace the poverty, disease, and lower academic achievement in black communities to the persistent discrimination that lasted long after slavery ended.

But many African Americans today don't need special assistance to succeed, and they shouldn't get it. There are others, though, whose circumstances still require special assistance - among them not only blacks and Latinos but also poor whites and others.

It may not be fair that they get a helping hand, but it's good. And doing that which is good is what America is supposed to be all about.

E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.