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A primer on fairness

There is another term that I have to define, however operationally, before this conversation can continue. I will also be making repeated reference to the word ‘fair’. This is a much more difficult concept to define without someone raising an objection, or without descending into progressively more circular terms until I spiral inward upon myself and implode.

“Fairness” and “justice”, at least in the context of this discussion, can be considered largely interchangeable. I recognize that justice can take on a character that implies the intervention of a third party – in a religious case this would be the intervention of the gods, in a legal case this is a system of laws and law enforcers. I use ‘fairness’ specifically in order to avoid such associations, which would only serve to complicate a discussion that I anticipate will become highly complicated without any help from this particular semantic confusion.

I am highly aware of the flaws in the argument Sam Harris makes in The Moral Landscape. Perhaps more than most, I have a professional appreciation for how difficult it actually is to measure human health and happiness (this is one of the things that health economists try to do). That being said, in a general case and assuming it were possible to get a pretty good measure for it (this is, again, the economist in me speaking), Dr. Harris’ idea is not an irredeemably bad one. A system that increases an aggregate score of human happiness is preferable to one with less aggregate happiness – again, in broad strokes, I think we wouldn’t find anything controversial about such a statement.

What Dr. Harris fails to account for, in my opinion, is how arbitrary our measures of ‘preferable’ and ‘happiness’ are. The fact that we can get broad agreement that marshmallows are preferable to torture does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that marshmallows can, in any meaningful sense, be said to be preferable to a symphony (or vice versa). I do not have a solution to this arbitrariness, so I will not criticize Dr. Harris too much for not providing one. I will, however, attempt to sidestep it as adroitly as I can.

A concept like ‘fairness’ has to be thought of as a temporally and socially defined construct. ‘Fair’ is not an enduring thing that crosses cultures absolutely, but rather emerges from a set of moral axioms that are shared (however roughly) by a group of people. So in an ancient monarchy system, it was entirely ‘fair’ for power to be passed hereditarily. People agreed on it, they saw the utility in such an arrangement, they agreed to abide by it. Other places saw a monarchial system as unfair and replaced it with something else. There was no inherent ‘unfairness’ in a monarchial system before the underlying moral axioms changed – it was more or less decided by a combination of fiat and consensus.

A useful way of resolving the question of ‘is this fair?’ is to rely on appeals to the moral axioms themselves and explain why one or more of them is being violated. For example, we in this society would not consider it ‘fair’ to cut out someone’s entrails to use as a hat. If someone proposed this course of action, we would say that the unfairness arises from the fact that we value bodily autonomy and believe that it is not right to harm someone else.

Now to be sure, we would likely consider it ‘fair’ to (perhaps) temporarily restrain the liberty of a person who seriously proposed the ‘guts hat’, but that’s because we also have systems whereby we prioritize certain moral axioms above others. We do not consider it ‘fair’ to deprive someone of their liberty by locking them in a hospital against their will, but may consider it ‘fair’ to do so if that person poses a serious risk to themselves or to others.

We see from the above digressions that ‘fairness’ refers to a state in which a person exists in harmony with agreed-upon moral axioms, and is not deprived of access to those axioms for arbitrary reasons. Again, ‘arbitrary’ in this case is socially and temporally defined – monarchial rule seems ‘arbitrary’ as heck to me where and when I live, but ask the 17th-century Malian version of me, and I might have a very different answer.

As a button to this discussion, and since it will likely come up. ‘justice’ could be seen (at least in a secular context) as ‘meta-fairness’. In cases where we cannot get agreement on those moral axioms, we can often agree to leave adjudication up to some duly-appointed body (such as a court system), and agree to abide by its decisions even in cases where we may not necessarily agree with them. While judicial systems are backed by the ostensible threat of force, it is not necessary most cases to resort to that.

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Comments

  1. crayzz says

    There was no inherent ‘unfairness’ in a monarchial system before the underlying moral axioms changed – it was more or less decided by a combination of fiat and consensus.

    This is an idea I haven’t actually expressed before, so bear with me if I’m unclear (if you don’t mind).

    I think we have 2 different constructs for dealing with fairness: the underlying axioms, and the system we’ve devised to meet the of ideals those axioms. You’re example, I think, falls under the latter, which can said to be inherently less fair than another system, given the same set of axioms. A monarchs responsibility, to my understanding (history may prove me wrong), is to ensure peace of his or her land. Passing such responsibility by inheritance is asinine; there’s no reason to think the hypothetical queen’s idiot son could do as good job as she has. From this, it follows that some sort of democracy would be more fair.

    Now, there may be conflicting axioms which state that the monarch owns their land, thus inheritance is fair. In that case, I would argue that the moral axioms contradict each other, and that one must change to avoid an ultimately arbitrary system.

  2. flex says

    I’m looking forward to reading the upcoming posts, and I’ll try to keep in mind your definition of ‘fairness’, but I’m not convinced that you have been any more successful than Sam Harris in defining the term.

    To use one of your examples, a person living under Charles the Second may live in harmony with the concept on monarchy, but still may not consider such an institution as ‘fair’. Instead this hypothetical individual may simply be unable to make changes.

    The trouble I see with the concept of ‘fairness’ is that it is largely derived from our personal interactions with other members of our somewhat limited group. The average person interacts with probably 20-40 people regularly and maybe 100-200 people over a longer period of time. Our individual sense of fairness is largely defined by our personal experience and our childhood training. From an aggregate viewpoint of a society, it is very difficult to extend personal experiences and our expectations of the behavior of others to the aggregate. There will be unexpected incongruities which will appear unfair. Which is one very good reason why a third party, as impartial as possible, justice system is unnecessary.

    What seems fair to a Wall-Street Broker is different than what appears fair to a national politician, which is different than what seems fair to waitress. (Which is a good reason why professional politicians appear to be idiots so often. Politicians which have spent 20-30 years in another profession have at least some concept of what other people think is fair.)

    In other words, I doubt that the concept of ‘fairness’ is even definable for a society. I fear it is similar to the problem of extrapolating from an individual to a population statistic (i.e. the evidence of one red-haired man cannot be used to claim that an entire population is red-haired). In a similar fashion, when a law is applied to an entire society individuals are likely to be hurt by it, inadvertently. (Which is the real purpose of courts of justice, to apply societal laws in a fashion where individuals do not indiscriminately suffer by them.)

    Maybe that is where you are heading, into a discussion of the differences in the moral axioms different segments of our society are following, but I didn’t get that sense from your OP or the previous post on cultural mythology. Instead I got the sense that you are trying to refine the concept of fairness to a more limited sense to keep it consistent with your upcoming discussion of cultural myths.

    So I’ll try to keep your definition in mind as you make your arguments.

  3. says

    Passing such responsibility by inheritance is asinine; there’s no reason to think the hypothetical queen’s idiot son could do as good job as she has

    Unless you believe the family is ordained by the gods to rule. Or, as you say, wealth is passed through inheritance (and why is that considered fair rather than asinine?), which means that command of the mercenary armies falls to the first-born, or whatever.

    I agree with you that monarchy isn’t a great system, but that’s because you and I share a set of moral axioms when it comes to merit and the value of democracy. A plutocrat or an oligarch might feel that allowing masses of uneducated, ignorant people make decisions on behalf of people who actually understand what they’re talking about is massively unfair. If they were having that conversation among themselves, then whatever set of axioms is common to them determines what ‘fair’ is.

  4. says

    I am highly aware of the flaws in the argument Sam Harris makes in The Moral Landscape. Perhaps more than most, I have a professional appreciation for how difficult it actually is to measure human health and happiness (this is one of the things that health economists try to do). That being said, in a general case and assuming it were possible to get a pretty good measure for it (this is, again, the economist in me speaking), Dr. Harris’ idea is not an irredeemably bad one.

    I haven’t read Harris’ book (I read a lot of what he and others have written about it online and, as usual in his case, didn’t find his arguments compelling enough to delve deeper), but the general idea isn’t really his. I’d googled a while back, and saw no indication that Harris had cited the work of Erich Fromm. I’ve been writing about it – now moving into more critical mode – and it seems to me that for all their flaws Fromm’s ideas about human needs and ethics were vastly superior to anything I’ve seen from the likes of Harris.

  5. says

    I’m not convinced that you have been any more successful than Sam Harris in defining the term.

    Nor am I. The rest of this thought experiment concerns subjective definitions of ‘fairness’ anyway, so I am not yet concerned that this is a fatal flaw, but it might be.

    I doubt that the concept of ‘fairness’ is even definable for a society

    If you mean that you can’t get everyone to agree on a list of things that are fair, then I agree 100%. If you mean that people can’t agree on some shared description of what ‘fairness’ means, I’m not so sure. People seem to have an innate sense of fairness, and most everyone will agree that it exists, at least in concept.

    Instead I got the sense that you are trying to refine the concept of fairness to a more limited sense to keep it consistent with your upcoming discussion of cultural myths.

    Something like that, yes. I just don’t want to have to keep backtracking to answer “well what does ‘fair’ mean, anyway?”

  6. crayzz says

    I agree with you that monarchy isn’t a great system, but that’s because you and I share a set of moral axioms when it comes to merit and the value of democracy.

    I’m not disputing your point about axioms. I think you’re mostly* right. I’m trying to differentiate between the ideals and the system that enforces those ideals. I think the former is axiomatic whereas the other is not.

    A plutocrat or an oligarch might feel that allowing masses of uneducated, ignorant people make decisions on behalf of people who actually understand what they’re talking about is massively unfair.

    I always liked the idea of enforcing some sort of test to ensure voters actually new the platform and legislative record of the involved political parties. I totally understand why such a test is entirely unethical, and I will fight against it if it’s ever actually proposed. I just wish there was some way to implement the test that wasn’t unethical.

    *I’ll spare you my half muddled thoughts on this one

  7. says

    I just wish there was some way to implement the test that wasn’t unethical

    Technically speaking there are no real democracies at the national level (as far as I know. I could be wrong). Most of them have regional representatives who are democratically elected, and who then go on to vote as part of a pseudo-aristocratic system of governing. It’s a way of sending the best and brightest from each community to represent, but of course it seldom works out that way.

  8. smrnda says

    Something about fairness; I always consider it a question of how to balance the interests of people who have varying degrees of power. In this sense a monarchy (to me) is unfair since the monarch has lots of power, and if they fail in their duties to the general public, the public is just out of luck on that one, but that if any member of the public fails by the monarch’s standards, then that person is off to be beheaded. Since employers have more power over workers than workers have over employers, there ought to be laws to balance the interest of the worker against those of the employer. Adults have lots of power over children, and so there need to be laws to balance this potential conflict of interest (but in the states this is particularly difficult, since many people want to consider children as, effectively, the property of their parents.)

    There may be some situations where it’s fair to treat people unequally – people with no understanding of science probably shouldn’t be elected to office and then be permitted to sit on committees that decide on matters involving science and technology or health care, but I’m not sure what mechanism can be put in place to prevent this from happening.

    When people mentioned how our social circle informs out notions of fairness, I’d say my notions have been set because I’ve known enough poor people, who are often invisible to people who have money or even to ‘middle class’ persons, who are rarely encouraged to wonder “Gee, if I think I’ve got it rough on 50,000 a year, how much does the person who bags my groceries make?” probably just because there’s a few barriers in making cross-class relationships happen. I know there are people who work who are poor, so I know that the belief that work is the solution to poverty is BS, since poor people are working harder than I do.

  9. Dunc says

    The fact that we can get broad agreement that marshmallows are preferable to torture does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that marshmallows can, in any meaningful sense, be said to be preferable to a symphony (or vice versa).

    And it becomes even more problematic when we start asking if there is a number of marshmallows which could be given to one person which would justify the torture of another…

    If you mean that you can’t get everyone to agree on a list of things that are fair, then I agree 100%. If you mean that people can’t agree on some shared description of what ‘fairness’ means, I’m not so sure. People seem to have an innate sense of fairness, and most everyone will agree that it exists, at least in concept.

    To borrow from Rawls, I think it’s useful to distinguish between the concept of fairness, and specific conceptions of fairness. We all share a concept of fairness, but we disagree about the details of our conceptions of it.

    I think Rawls has one of the most well thought-out conceptions of fairness, but it’s not one that seems to be widely held by actual people… I’d also second SC’s recommendation of Fromm.

    There’s a reason why this topic is normally dealt with in large, near-impenetrable philosophical treatises – it’s bloody complicated.

  10. flex says

    People seem to have an innate sense of fairness, and most everyone will agree that it exists, at least in concept.

    Possibly. But it is also interesting how often even a marginal amount of self-interest can over-rule fairness.

    I was thinking about this last night at the grocery store. When I left the store there was, as there often is, a car sitting in the No Parking/Fire Lane area just in front of the store. There was a driver in it, and most likely the story was that a passenger insisted on them parking there because, “I’m just going to pick up my medicine at the pharmacy. I’ll just be a moment.” Or something like that. Possibly the driver was picking up someone who was getting off a shift. There are a lot of potential reasons.

    Now, from a safety standpoint, well, it’s probably not really a problem. It is against the law, and the driver could be asked to move or be ticketed. Yet, if there was a fire the car could be moved even before the engines arrived, and the car wasn’t blocking any traffic.

    However, this sort of thing I find very irritating. For a little extra effort the car could have been parked in an actual parking space and the passenger would have had to walk maybe 30 more steps each way. There were plenty of parking spaces nearby. There would be no violation of the laws the rest of us abide by, to whit, we don’t generally park in an area clearly marked as No Parking. After all, if a lot of people ignored that rule there would be a problem with traffic flow and safety. One car isn’t much of a problem, 20 cars would be.

    So the question does boil down to fairness. The real reason I’m irritated is because it doesn’t seem fair that this driver is getting away with breaking a rule that, as far as I’m concerned is not only a good rule, but extremely easy to comply with. Don’t get me wrong, I will break rules. But I generally know I’m doing so, and have what I consider a good reason for doing so. But I don’t see the point in breaking a rule which is so easy to abide by.

    To get back to this case, as I pushed my cart alongside the car parked in the Fire Lane, I looked at the driver. Letting the driver know that I was a little irritated that the car was parked inappropriately. The driver wouldn’t meet my eye. I suspect the driver was also embarrassed to be parking in the Fire Lane, knew what they did was wrong (in a minor way), and was uncomfortable. I believe the driver recognized the unfairness of the situation.

    But they did it anyway.

    So either the driver was badgered into parking there, allowing someone else’s self-interest to over-ride their discomfort. Or the driver was allowing their own self-interest to override the discomfort they felt by parking there.

    In any event, a small amount of self-interest overrode an insignificant rule.

    Or I’m reading too much into the situation. :)

  11. jesse says

    Hm. Reading this, I wonder if you worked in the scientific work that’s been done on how children perceive ‘fair’ — even cross-culturally, insofar as anyone has looked?

    I seem to remember a few studies out there — I haven’t google scholared it — that showed kids at a young age start to develop notions of sharing and such, and get mightily annoyed when those ‘norms’ are violated. (Watch a bunch of pre-K kids argue over whose turn it is to play with something, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s kind of weird how they seem to spontaneously build mini-social systems).

    If this is really true cross-culturally — the studies I am aware of were done in developed nations and western ones at that (unless there is literature in Japan about this, or China) — then it’s an interesting adjunct to this because it means there is a hard-wired concept of fairness that humans have. I know evolutionary psychology has all kinds of problems, but I don’t think it would be too controversial to say that such a hard-wired capacity for ‘fairness’ was pretty crucial to our development as a social, co-operative species, and that we share that trait with chimps, bonobos and other primates.

    But I get the sense that’s a bit different than what you (Crommunist) are outlining here.

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