Fairness in the World

Today I’ll ruminate a bit more about fairness. It strikes me that elaborating fairness into the three elements of fairness I suggested might be useful in helping to explain how people can disagree so completely about what’s fair. I’ll see if I can apply that insight in the context of trying to determine what is and isn’t fair in the world at large.

To review, there are three somewhat distinct virtues that all get called “fairness”. I’ll restate them a little to help generalize the context:

Fairness A: Fairness is meeting people’s settled expectations, and honoring past practice;

Fairness B: Fairness is treating everybody equally; and

Fairness C: Fairness is rewarding good performance (and punishing bad).

Fairness A is the fairness of Edmund Burke. It assumes that there is a deep wisdom in the way things are, and that attempts to meddle with them usually make things worse rather than better.

Fairness B is the fairness of Karl Marx. The good things of the world belong to all in common, and justice requires that all share equally.

Fairness C is the fairness of Confucius. The world should be run in the way that best encourages virtue and discourages vice.

All three of these notions have some validity, and many find themselves with one kind of fairness that seems most central, but with a good deal of sympathy for another, and dismissive of the third.

Thus, for example, a Burkean conservative will be deeply suspicious of any effort by the government to impose at official notion of personal virtue, but may well support free public schools so that children can begin life on a more equal footing. A, moderated by B, disapproving C.

A Marxist will abhor inherited wealth and want to expropriate great estates and redirect them to the common good, but may be willing to tolerate a considerable disparity in conditions if the wealth was gained by the possessor’s own useful and productive labor. B, moderated by C, disapproving A.

Confucius’ meritocratic teachings are thought to be the basis for the long-standing practice, in pre-revolutionary China, of government largely in the hands of bureaucrats selected by competitive examination, but he also tended to indulge the assumption that traditional practice and the existing social order were reservoirs of past virtue. C, moderated by A, disapproving B.

It is a good thing to try to cultivate some sympathy for viewpoints based on values you don’t share. But to the extent that arguments about fairness are really about different kinds of fairness, it’s unlikely that they can be fully resolved.

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