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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