The illusiveness of fairness

Fairness is a concept which is used often to justify a point of view when discussing the distribution of goods or benefits – “it should be done fairly”. But what does this mean, what is fair and what is not fair? Most people seem to have a very strong sense whether something is fair or not, but what is this based on? As a philosopher, I do not take common sense for granted and decided to research this claim.

I was initially surprised to find that none of the philosophical dictionaries and encyclopaedias I have access to contain a lemma on fairness (besides references to John Rawls’ concept of Justice as Fairness). Searching the scholar section of Google provided some starting points. Unfortunately academic publishers charge exorbitant amounts to read journal articles and I refuse to pay for research which is essentially funded through taxes. So I started from scratch.

The common sense point of view of fairness is a sense of equality. Our sense of fairness is cultivated at a very early age: I remember having fights with my sister over who should get the largest piece of cake and even using a measuring tape to support our point of view.

Fairness as an absolute equality, such as in the cake problem, is a strange concept. If we apply this childish view of the world to adult problems, everybody would be paid exactly the same salary; would live in the same kind of house, wear the same clothes …

In most cases references to fairness lead to equal suffering between all parties – i.e. the preferred solution is usually the one that takes away from one party.

An absolutist concept of fairness can also lead to some extreme consequences. The Old Testament concept of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-27) is a very well known example of absolute fairness. This is one of the arguments that Christian apologetics use to justify the death penalty. This bizarre ritual is, for many reasons outside the scope of this article, a very irrational punishment. The eye for an eye concept leads to situations such as we currently see in the middle east and is a slippery slope that should be avoided.

Absolute fairness is an artificial concept, which does not take the realities of life into consideration, e.g. we don’t all need or deserve the same piece of cake. It is a dangerous concept which can lead to unwanted consequences.

This leads to the next concept: relative fairness. For the cake problem this means that one child should get a larger piece because he or she is more hungry than the other or has behaved better. This relative concept comes much closer to the common sense concept of fairness which is used in every day life.

We accept that doctors are paid more than taxi drivers. Doctors save our lives, while taxi divers perform a much less critical function in society. Western society is, when it comes to distribution of wealth, basically a meritocracy in which everybody is rewarded on their merit.

Although merit is not the primary driver, it is a guiding principle in determinations of fairness. But is consideration of merit by itself sufficient to have a fair determination? Who determines who has how much merit? Is merit our individual contribution to society or to a business or is merit based on our personal needs? How much merit warrants one person getting a piece of cake twice as big as the other?

Another determinant in distribution problems can be need. The most hungry people need to most or best food. Need, beyond primal necessity, is not a very practical concept to use. Need is a concept which can be used only in situations where survival or health of people is at stake. Health care is an example where need has preference over merit.

If we want to use fairness as a determinant in solving a wealth distribution problem, we effectively shift the question. The discussion shifts from fairness to merit (being good) or need (being more hungry) and possibly other considerations I have not yet explored.

It seems that fairness is an utterly useless concept when trying to determine the distribution of goods. We can not use it to determine who gets which size of cake because it either leads to a blanket absolute equality or a series of further questions. The answer of these further questions (what is merit? what is need?) depends on our philosophical (or political) orientation.

My conclusion is that fairness should not be used as a determinant in wealth distribution problems and the word should be reserved for its original meaning, e.g. “free of spots and stains“.

One thought on “The illusiveness of fairness

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