Politics and fairness

OK, raise your hand if you believe in fairness. Ha! I tricked you. I haven’t yet defined what fairness means.

Everyone has their own definition of fairness. But here’s how Haidt defines it:

Fairness/Cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

So Haidt’s system is measuring fairness in terms of proportionality, not equality. In other words, fairness is the requirement that people are treated equally, not that the outcome of such treatment is equal.

That seems reasonable, but it’s not a definition of fairness that we all use in everyday life. To apply rules impartially and senselessly may lead to injustice. That’s why we don’t require ten year olds to race against 16 year olds on school sports day. It’s why we have specially-reserved parking spaces for disabled people. It’s why we have different rates of tax and why some employers apply positive discrimination in job interviews.

But where do we draw the line? When does a universal rule lead to injustice? When do special cases themselves undermine the principle of fairness?

Everyone has a different answer.

The economist Milton Friedman saw any deviation from universal rules as state interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary agreements with each other. Such interference has the effect of suppressing such voluntary agreements, to the detriment of all. He further argued that so-called positive discrimination is no different to negative discrimination, such as Hitler’s Nuremberg laws. After all, who is to be the judge of whether discrimination is positive or negative? Throughout history, democratic majorities have shown themselves to be capable of adopting all sorts of prejudices. Morals change with time and in the long run only impartial neutrality is guaranteed to be fair.

But while unambiguous laws that apply universally are the holy grail of justice, in practice almost none of us would accept such indiscriminate blind laws.

Liberals tend to be swayed by the Care moral foundation, which means that they are more likely to “bend the rules” and apply special cases. Conservatives, whilst equally caring, value the principles of Loyalty and Authority just as much as Fairness, and so are less likely to shift the goalposts and change the rules.

These factors change our perception of what fairness means. Is it fair that hardworking people subsidize the lifestyle choices of those who don’t work? Is it fair that one person earns more than another for the same number of hours? Everyone has a different answer it seems.

So, let me ask again. Raise your hand if you believe in fairness.

11 responses to “Politics and fairness

  1. “Is it fair that hardworking people subsidize the lifestyle choices of those who don’t work?” As long as you phrase it as a choice, where someone is able to work but chooses not to, then no. But what about those who are unable to work, either due to some physical or emotional handicap or because their jobs have been eliminated or shifted overseas?

    “Is it fair that one person earns more than another for the same number of hours?” The question is too broad. Number of hours worked is a meaningless measure unless you’re talking about people who are performing the exact same tasks or have equivalent job responsibilities. Have they been doing the job for the same period of time? Do they have the same level of education, skill sets, and are they performing at a comparable manner? Then no, it’s not fair for one to earn more than the other. But if their jobs are different, if their responsibilities are different. If their skills and performance are different, then yes, it’s fair for the one with greater responsibilities, higher skills, and better performance to be paid a different amount.

  2. this is capitalism for you……..

  3. Really good article.

  4. I’m with Doobster.

  5. Thanks for your comments so far. I was hoping that this article would help people reflect on why they believe certain things, not simply what they think is fair.

    Haidt’s study shows that everyone believes in fairness as a core moral principle, but that it is tempered by other moral principles, and that is what gives us a spectrum of beliefs about what is fair.

  6. Fan of Dickens

    This is such a tough one as because, as you indicate, everyone has his or her own definition of fairness. When I was a secondary school teacher, I constantly strove to be fair, but an adolescent’s perception of fairness was often at odds with mine. Being fair to your children is another minefield, and I think the distinction you elucidate between equality and fairness is especially apposite here: you want to show your offspring that you love them both equally, but of course we all know that children are individuals, and however much you may count the cornflakes a blanket approach to everything doesn’t always work, especially in each areas as motivation and encouragement. I am going to cop out of this one and sit on the fence!

  7. It made me think a lot which is good…I was one of 5 children and as the oldest girl I helped cooking and serving.I thought I was being fair dividing it up exactly but now I see I was wrong because boys need more food.There was never enough for us owing to poverty,,, so I tried my best.It made me good at mathematics and led to an interest in ethics.. and now I have too much to eat.. it’s a funny life..But I think flexibility is needed…. also people assume everyone can be upwardly mobile which is impossible.I was but have many regrets about losing my original accent,language and fitting into the world I grew up in.I feel alien in both places

    • Yes, fairness and equality – if only they could be the same, then moral choices would be so much easier! I am gradually persuading myself that neither fairness nor equality are important objectives, and the test should be – is this useful? As you say, boys need more food, so giving them equal portions left them hungrier than the girls.

  8. indeed fairness and equality aren’t the same thing, and my opinion is equality needs fairness in it.

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