28 February 2020

Equality vs fairness

Equality vs fairness

Equality is certainly a topic that has been at the fore front of philosophy. We are mostly familiar with the concept of equality through the political idea that we are all equal, we are born equal and, even more important, we are all equal in front of the law.

The key necessary conditions of equality are not to discriminate and applying the same rules and criteria in matters of judgement equally to everyone. In practice such an ideal is never achieved: discrimination is rife in all societies and lack of money excludes many people from being treated equally. The most serious instances of this inequality are access to legal justice, access to education and access to health care. Although there are other services that a person needs to have a fulfilling life.

The English word, fairness (fair), has a very wide use in everyday language and no doubt native speakers of English know how to use the word correctly.  However, unlike equality, fairness does not have a political or legal standing as equality does. This does not mean that law courts or politicians do not use this term in their language. Indeed fairness does have a role to play in both disciplines only that fairness is not a high frequency term or word.

Fairness is well documented in philosophy for example by John Rawls writes extensively on the subject but I will not be discussing the literature here. What I am interested for now is the use of the word fairness in everyday life.

But first, dictionaries tend to interpret fairness on the lines of justice, impartiality, no discrimination or no favouritism.  In effect these reference books use the same terminology as equality.

Other language translators tend to use the terms justice and equity. Unfortunately equity in English is a more restrictive term: we use it as a legal concept or branch of law, or something that requires a high sense of moral standing. I would argue that fairness is much closer to equity rather than justice. Something might be just and according to the law but it might not be fair, equitable or moral.

I would argue that fairness ought to be interpreted as "the right thing to do" or "the correct thing to do" or the opposite “not the correct thing to do” but without the legal or moral background of justice or equity.

This interpretation makes it possible for us to use the term fairness in everyday situations without involving ourselves with high level morality or judicial condemnation. For example, it is only fair that the first person in a queue is the first person to be served. There is nothing moral or legal about this example.

Another issue for us is whether our sense of equality and fairness are acquired from the norms of our society or innately available to us through genetics.

I am not totally convinced that these concepts are inherited although it is clear that we do use the terms correctly and usually based on a gut or instinctive feeling to a given situation.  Many societies discriminate against select members of that society, discriminate against females and even males and we still condone behaviours that we know to be unfair.

If society does not guarantee its member’s equality and fairness, the latter in a broad sense of the word, it should not be a surprise that inequalities happen within the family structure as well. Although we are led to believe that the next of kin are somehow different than other people and it is altruistic and morally correct to protect our next of kin, inequality and unfairness still happens with many families.

Favouritism by parents of one of their children is very common. This favouritism goes beyond the natural attraction of girls being attracted to their father and boys to their mother. Although this is natural this shouldn't create any long term issues if managed properly by the parents. It's when the parents favour one child at the expense of their other children that things can progress from the parents being unfair to the parents being immoral or even criminal.

Nepotism is an extension of favouritism within the family. Sometimes nepotism makes sense within a certain context. We can understand a successful business person to favour their children and we can even acquiesce for the crown to pass on to the elder child of a king/queen. It is when an employee of an institution who has the power to employ people and they employ a relative that nepotism turns from understandable to unfair and maybe even illegal.

When equality and fairness fail completely we might move from illegal nepotism to racism and closed-shop. Closed-shop being when members of a union in a place of work who prevent non members from joining the enterprise.

A traditional approach to issues of equality and fairness is to create some form of categorical imperative (Kant) or a veil of ignorance (Rawls). The idea is that our actions are based on the assumption that we might have to experience the fate of our decisions. This is all well and good, but inequality suggests that no one is better off than the others. As I keep repeating myself on the subject, the problem is how to persuade those who are better off already to stop being better off and be like everyone else. The Russian revolution did not succeed to solve this dilemma anymore than fascism did in Europe.

Fairness and fair behaviour in everyday life is even more complex. The way we use these terms are related to the spontaneous events in life. Someone jumping a queue is certainly being unfair until we discover they have to deal with an emergency at the time. In effect it is difficult to moralise about issues such as dilemmas and random spontaneity.

Best Lawrence

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