The Fairness Fixation

02 November 2014


This week our topic is what we’re calling fairness "fixation."  The choice of the word  ‘fixation’ is a little bit tongue in cheek. But it  is meant to convey the serious thought that maybe, just maybe, we are too concerned with fairness. There are definitely those – especially, I think, on the right, but perhaps not only them – who seem to think that we definitely are. They seem to think that we’ve gone way overboard with this fairness thing. They complain, for example, about the practice of giving every kid a participation medal just for participating in the race. They worry that that robs the race of any meaning and discourages kids from developing the drive and talent to succeed and win. And they think that such an approach is emblematic of a social milieu in which we refuse to acknowledge that some people deserve more than others. 

Now it might not be obvious exactly what this has to do with fairness. The practice of giving out participation medals seems, on its face, more about an obsessive concern with promoting positive self-esteem than with promoting fairness. That, I think, is quite a fair worry. But instead of dismissing the thought that this objectionable practice is an indicator of our concern with "fairness" running amok, let’s see if we can sympathetically construct the reasoning behind this thought. I think the exercise will prove revealing. 

Start with the widely shared intuition that there’s a certain degree of unfairness in the fact that some are born incredibly rich, while others are born incredibly poor. That’s life, we say. And life isn’t fair.  Except when the unfairness is like this – due to the blind and dumb luck of the draw – we do try to smooth, out at least a bit, the unfairness. That’s why we tend to ask the rich to pay more taxes than the poor. Behind this practice, I think, is the thought that everybody is equally entitled to at least a minimally decent life, independently of the luck of the draw.  

Now it’s even less fair, one might think, that some get a good education, while others get a lousy education. We think every kid is equally deserving of a good education. And we think that’s just a matter of basic fairness. That’s one reason why we have a system of public education at all. We’re simply unwilling to leave the quality of a person’s education to the luck of the draw, especially since education isn't some that blind nature provides. It's our doing if it's distributed in an unfair way. (That’s the theory, at least, whether it works out in practice, is another thing.)

Now the person who thinks that we are too concerned with fairness is liable to think that its just the kind of reasoning that we just applied that leads to the participation ribbons and other objectionable practices that refuse to distinguish those who are more deserving from those who are less deserving on the grounds of fairness. If every kid is equally deserving of a good education, just in virtue of being a kid, and every person is equally deserving of a minimally decent life, just in virtue of being a person, doesn’t it follow that every kid deserves a medal, just for running the race? Thus the charge arises that our fixation on fairness inevitably leads to the absurd conclusion that we should always treat people equally.

Unfortunately, the stated conclusion just doesn’t follow. To see why not, it will help to make some distinctions. We need to distinguish different notions of fairness --- fairness as equality of outcome; fairness as equality of opportunity; and fairness as just deserts. The reason that these distinctions are relevant here is that mostly when people complain about too much fairness, they’re almost always mixing apples and oranges. 

That’s just what the argument outlined above does in spades.  It trades on one notion of fairness to criticize another notion of fairness. It can be perfectly fair -- in the sense of just deserts fairness  -- that only the winner gets a medal, as long as the race is fair – in the sense of equal opportunity fairness. So it just doesn’t logically follow that if you committed to fairness, you are ipso facto logically committed to giving everybody a medal. 

But I wouldn’t want to dismiss the worry that fairness may not be the be all and end all of human relations and interactions too quickly. The fairness argument has an assumption at its core that deserves to be examined. It takes a commitment to equal treatment as a sort of default. It presumes that people deserve, as a default, to be treated equally and it presumes that   departures from equal treatment have to be morally justified somehow. Certainly that’s what Rawls seemed to argue in his landmark book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls made essentially proposed equality as the central principle of justice. And he argued that departures from equality are justifiable only to the extent that  they serve to improve the lot of the least well off. 

There is certainly something deeply intuitively appealing about the idea that equal treatment is the default and departures from equal treatment need to be -- though can be -- justified.   Take two employees at the same company, doing the same job, with the same level of expertise. Surely they deserve equal pay for their equal work. Unless the one is a better worker -- more dedicated, more efficient and productive -- it would be downright unfair to pay one more than the other.   

What if, though, one of them was my son or my friend and I wanted to pay them just a little bit more, in order to help them make ends meet just a little bit better?  I know that sounds like outright nepotism. And I know that we’ve been conditioned to think that nepotism is flat out wrong. But I’m not so sure. First of all, there's nothing obviously wrong with helping a friend or a family member in need. It's not like I harm the co-worker when I pay my son a little bit extra. I mean I could just outright give him the extra as a gift if I wanted. So why couldn't I chose to give it to him as salary instead?  

Plus there are structurally similar situations in which the equivalent of nepotism not only doesn’t seem wrong, it seems to be the morally preferable choice. Suppose there are two people drowning in the sea. You can save exactly one of them. One of the drowning people happens to be your spouse or significant other. The other is a perfect stranger. Which one do you save? Most of us, I think, would save the significant other without thinking twice about it. But what if some fairness obsessed do-gooder demands that you flip a fair coin to decide. After all, that would give them an equal opportunity to be saved. Or suppose that he demands that you impartially weigh up their virtues and vices.That would ensure that you save the one that objectively deserves to be saved. Would you do it?

My bet is that there is no chance whatsoever that you would take the do-gooder’s advice. And that suggests that considerations of fairness, no matter how construed, have their limits. Some people simply matter more to us than others do, when the chips are down. Fairness be damned!

To be sure, I wouldn't want to deny that that partiality has its limits too. I’m not willing, for example, to mount a full-throated defense of nepotism in the work place or in politics or public life generally. Plus, what if it was a black guy and a white guy drowning in that sea of mine?  Would it be morally acceptable for white guy to save the white guy simply because he happens to be more partial to whites than to blacks?  That seems carrying partiality a bit too far, in my opinion. 

As you can see, there is an awfully lot to think about here.  Chime in! Give us even more food for thought. 

Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, July 22, 2017 -- 11:50 AM

This may not be a popular

This may not be a popular view in our politically correct, morally ambiguous society, but, as the erstwhile former-president Jimmy Carter once said: life is unfair. Handing out medals for participation may make some feel better about boosting the self esteem of all who strive, but the fact is some people are good enough to win competitions and some are not. Band-aid diplomacy is nothing more than that. Better than gun-boat diplomacy I guess, but to what end?

MJA's picture


Monday, November 3, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Equality is the pure light at

Equality is the pure light at the end of the tunnel. Fairness is the grey area along the Way. Am I going the right Way you ask? Head toward the light and listen to your heart, the heart rings true!
And if you are tired of the journey there IS a short cut: just be the light, just be.

rohitcuny's picture


Tuesday, November 18, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

I would like to recommend a

I would like to recommend a notion invented by the Herb Simon and that notion is satisficing.
Satisficing is when you feel you have enough and do not feel that you need more.    It is typically contrasted with maximizing which is the orthodoxy in Economics.
Here is an Indian story.
A rich man (RM) had a cobbler for neighbor.  The RM's wife once said to him, "We are rich and he is poor so how come he is always happy and you go around with a scowl on your face?"  
RM said, "I will fix it" and the next day, he poured 99 rupees down the chimney of the cobbler.  The cobbler and his wife were really happy to see the money but then realized they were one short of 100.  They decided to skimp and save till they got that extra rupee.  But once they started they could not stop and a few months later, the cobbler had much more money and was just as unhappy as RM.
RM said to his wife, "See what I mean?  It is the push of the 99."   (In Gujarati, "navvanuno dhakko")

mwsimon's picture


Saturday, November 22, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

Paul Bloom, the guest from

Paul Bloom, the guest from the show about morality in babies, has done some interesting research on how early our ideas of fairness arise.  When having to split up candies between two people, children will throw out the odd extra one to make sure neither gets more.  Unless, of course, one of those people is themselves.  So there is some sense of fairness in us from a very young age, though it doesnt overcome our greed.  If fairness is innate to our moralities, does that give us grounds for supporting measures to ensure fairness?  Or does it need to be rationally justified some other way?

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 -- 4:00 PM

When considering fairness?and

When considering fairness?and by association equality?the arenas of race, class, and education come to mind most immediately, for I think it is in our discussions around these topics that we make the most impassioned appeals to fairness. Ken?s blog post touches on fairness as it pertains to all three of these arenas, and it seems no coincidence that we draw our paradigm cases from examples relating to these topics.
In her Equality, Adequacy, and Education for Citizenship Debra Satz presents a very compelling case for blurring the often sharply made distinction between striving for adequacy in education and striving for equal opportunity in education. I wonder if there is a conception of fairness that might do the same here, namely blur the distinction between ?fairness as equality of outcome; fairness as equality of opportunity; and fairness as just deserts.? Are these three conceptions always akin to apples, oranges, and grapes?