Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): What is 'fair'?

Saturday, January 31, 2004

What is 'fair'?

I am always staggered by many modern politicians of today. Much of the political and indeed journalistic establishment seems to lack conviction and too rarely do we hear support for bills, decisions, people on the grounds that the figure involved just believes it. Yes we need reason and logical debate, but it can either be heartfelt or a more passive, cynical PR procedure; merely a regurgitation of over-choreographed interactions.

The main instance of this which has recently bugged me is the idea of 'fairness'. It is so often bandied around as the trump card of any argument. Seeing one edition of Question Time on (I'm saying my Hail Maries) BBC it seemed like a sprint for them all to grab the fairness card; whoever could shoe-horn it into the discussion first had the moral high ground. Now, I find this slightly sickening. Surely all politicians (or nearly all) want to be 'fair'? At least surely nobody wants to be 'unfair? So what we see then are discussions about the comparative impact of a policy or government on different sections of society being distilled into a rather unsophisticated slinging match of who is 'fairer'. Sad.

Of course, we all know why they do it; so that the ordinary punters on the other end of the TV think to themselves "oh, he (or she, to be fair) must be a jolly good chap. I'll vote for him, he's fair. Unlike all those other selfish people". When the standard of debate in this country is reduced to being a compaetition to seize the necessary buzz word we have reached a depressing state indeed. The public is deemed unable to make up its own mind about whether something is fairer, or even better, for them or fairer, or even better, for society at large. The result is that 'fair' can be banded around as the trump card it shouldn't be. What ought to matter is which is better for the country.

But what is fairness anyway? Does anyone really have any conscious idea? Why is it necessarily such a be-all-and-end-all?

I think that there is a clear difference which can be drawn between substantive and formal fairness. Formal fairness precludes unfairness in individual procedures, rules and processes of society. What of substantive fairness though? BW Hooker is tempted to describe it as "to do one?s part in any existing mutually beneficial social practice", fairness requiring reciprocation of advantages gleaned from society. As eloquently argued by Robert Nozick in the 70s, however, even if you had received benefit from communal practices, and even if this benefit was a greater return than your fair share of sustaining the practice would be, there may still not be a moral obligation to contribute to the practice. From a moral point of view it ought to matter whether when you accepted the benefit you knew that at a later date you would be expected to contribute to the practice by others. If you are ignorant when benefits are bestowed upon you that this is not a gift but part of a bargain there is an inherent wrong committed in enforcing the other side of the bargain. This is recognised by our law of contracts.

So fairness can in some way be seen to equate to what a person actually agreed to rather than what they would have agreed to: we approach the concept of a morally binding promise in order to fully appreciate fairness. The key question then is when a promise should be morally binding? What do we predicate our morals on? This way it seems that fairness, as a buzz word, is a truly fatuous one. It means what anyone wants it to mean. The real argument is about what moral rights should underpin society. Hooker advances one extremely plausible suggestion of a set of moral rights being justified if their communal acceptance maximizes expected aggregate well-being (or just that part of well-being constituted by autonomy). Perhaps this assessment needs to factor in an improvement in individual well-being as well to ensure a weighting in the interests of the poorly-off? Perhaps it needs a greater weighting than that? A much less comfortable ground for politicians to debate upon, I'm sure you'll agree. We may actually see their true beliefs then!


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