Thursday, 22 July 2010

Will Hutton & the Quest for Fairness

So Will Hutton, on behalf of the government, wants the public to help him define 'fairness'. The Oxford Popular Dictionary defines it as "just, unbiased" (and then goes on to define 'justice' as "fairness to all concerned"). I don't suppose that's much help.

Fairness is difficult to define simply because its used so loosely and subjectively. In everyday speech, people regularly define it implicitly to serve whatever point they are making. Nevertheless, I can make out two distinct, though, related uses of the term (though I doubt these are exhaustive).

One version of fairness (fairness as impartiality?) has it that a process or outcome is fair the same rules and standards are applied to all. Fairness is observed if people are treated differently only on the basis of relevant considerations. So, for example, if people are barred from attending university because of their race or gender, it is unfair on this conception. If they are not admitted on the basis of their intellectual capabilities, their is no unfairness. Of course, this leaves open the question of what a 'relevant consideration' is.

The alternative idea of fairness (fairness as justice?) posits that fairness is satisfied only if people get what they deserve. Thus it is unfiar that spoilt Johnny down the road gets a bigger pile of presents from his parents than me even though he is no better behaved than I am. Notice that fairness as justice is a special version of fairness as impartiality, where the only 'relevant consideration' is desert. To state it more fully, the idea of fairness as justice is that fairness is observed if people are differentially treated only on the basis of desert.

The distinction between the two conceptions of fairness is clear if we consider a case where someone misses out on something they deserve without suffering any procedural disadvantage. For instance, if I work really hard and consistently produce work of an 'A' standard, but then for some reason miss out on an 'A' in the exam (the topics I had revised best didn't come up) this is unfair in the second sense (justice) but not the first (impartiality). If, though, I miss out on the grade because I was formally disadvantaged - for example, if I got less time than everyone else - then this is unfair on both counts.

There are a couple of reasons why I think it is fairness as justice that Hutton is interested in. Fairness as impartiality merely suggests that fairness is satisfied when everybody is treated 'according to the rules'. But since Hutton is charged with making the rules, and in particular with making a fair set of rules, I don't think he can take much from fairness as impartiality. Moreover, fairness as impartiality seems to act in most cases as a proxy for fairness as justice. In other words, the reason we have the rules we do is to ensure that justice is served. So, for example, the reason we adhere so closely to exam regulations is because we believe that this is the best way of ensuring the most deserving candidates are the most successful. The only reason we retain the idea of fairness as impartiality is because often determining desert is a subjective and contriversial matter: ensuring independent and acceptable standards forestalls disagreement.

If something is fair if people get what they deserve, this still leaves the tricky question of determining what constitutes desert. I would suggest that a reasonable first principle is that people cannot deserve something because of factors beyond their control. To deserve something, in its ordinary sense, I would suggest that you have to do something. Desert, I propose, has to be earned. This is why injustices such as feudalism and the caste system anger people so much - because people are exalted to a higher status without having done anything to achieve it, simply by having the good fortune of being born to the right parents.

If we accept this link between desert and responsibility, then determinism rears its head again. If we can only earn the right to deserve something by virtue of the things we are responsible for then the determinist's claim that we are responsible for nothing undermines the idea of desert (and so, fairness).

There are a number of links in this chain, and I'm not certain about any of them - this is not meant to be conclusive, by any stretch of the imagination. Firstly, it is not clear that the two versions of fairness I have described cover the entirety of the concept. There could be simpler and better ways of analysing it. Second, fairness as impartiality might not be so easily reducible to fairness as justice. Third, some might not accept the identification of justice with desert. Fourthly, desert might be separable from responsibility. My tentative conclusion is that the idea of fairness is too contradictory and ad hoc to be worth pursuing. It seems at best a proxy for other values. If, like Hutton, your job is to define fairness, it appears your best strategy is to examine closely the principles underwriting it.

1 comment:

  1. Somewhat ill-formed response: even if determinism were true and its problematic consequences followed (i.e. no-one was morally responsible in the traditional sense), couldn't we still have a well-functioning sense of fairness as impartiality?

    You say "Hutton is charged with making the rules, and in particular with making a fair set of rules", but isn't he (rightly or wrongly) making those 'fair' rules so they're largely in accordance with our societal conceptions of what constitute relevant differences in different contexts, not constructing them a priori from fairness as justice? In other words, we can go partially relativist to avoid the problem...

    You might respond that this leaves us open to the stupidity/racism of the majority, and I'm not sure I have a good answer at this point, though perhaps it can be avoided through frustratingly slow inter-generational change in values through education, and political action leading public opinion?