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The Multiple Meanings of Fair

— September 15, 2016

What is fairness? We all know it when we see it, right? Yet somehow, we keep disagreeing with each other about what is fair, especially when we feel like we’re the ones getting shafted in any given situation. I submit to you that the problem lies in the multiple competing definitions of “fairness” that vary depending upon the perspective, life experience, and assumptions of the observer. People may be using the same word, but they aren’t necessarily meaning the same thing when they say it.

There’s a compelling argument to be made that even some animals understand moral concepts like fairness. Frans de Waal is a Dutch primatologist and ethologist who performed behavioral experiments using capuchin monkeys. In a classic experiment, he had a researcher reward monkeys for doing simple tasks with a chunk of cucumber. As long as both monkeys received the same cucumber reward, the monkeys were happy to keep performing the task. However, when one monkey received a more highly valued grape reward instead, the monkey who received a mere chunk of cucumber protested the unfairness of it all! Clearly, the underlying concept of fairness is (shall we say) fairly universal, but what standard is fair?

Allow me for a moment to indulge in a thought experiment. For the purposes of this conversation, I am going to open Dawn’s General Hospital. In my imaginary hospital’s state-of-the-art emergency room, we will need a way to make sure that patients are seen by doctors in as fair a manner as possible. Consider these three ways: First is the traditional triage procedure, where people who come in with genuine emergencies such as heart attacks will be seen immediately, while people who only have a broken arm may have to wait a while for medical attention. (It’s fair to make sure the people who need resources the most are the ones who have preference, yes?) The second way is to have everyone who comes in take a number, just as if it were a deli counter. (It’s fair to serve people in the order they arrived, right?) The third way is to ration treatment by cost: those who can pay the most to be seen in the emergency room will be seen first, and those who cannot afford treatment will have to wait for the line to go down. (It’s fair because it’s my hospital and I get to make the rules, and the people who really want and need treatment the most will gladly pay up, correct?)

All of these examples are fair, by some definition of fair, but it’s also arguable that each of these examples is unfair, too. The first example may be unfair to the guy with the broken arm who had to sit there in pain for twelve hours. The second example is unfair to someone who really needs medical attention immediately or else they may die. And the third example is unfair to someone who has trouble affording rent and dinner, let alone an expensive hospital visit. Or are they? If a situation is fair to the person who prevailed but unfair to the person who loses, could it be that the situation is not fair at all, or maybe the situation was fairly biased against the person who should not have gotten their way? It takes a perspective shift, stepping into the metaphorical shoes of the Other and really perceiving their definition of “fair,” to make these judgment calls. The ability to make that perspective shift at will is a crucial tool in understanding where your ideological opponents are coming from, and is immensely helpful when trying to communicate with them in a way that gets you somewhere other than an argument or “internet debate.”

Pulling some examples from real life issues, it’s easy to see the multiple meanings of fairness at work. The reasoning behind Affirmative Action, for example, is to give a hand up to traditionally disadvantaged groups. In order to level the playing field and change the culture to one of inclusiveness, women and minorities may be preferentially chosen for jobs or admissions to college. But stepping into another perspective, this could also be considered unfair to equally- or better-qualified candidates who also worked hard and who, through no fault of their own, were born into more socially-advantaged bodies or classes. It may be easy to minimize the effect of these hiring or admissions decisions by saying that one group deserves them more, but beware, because the group selected against (whichever one that is) will chafe at the unfairness.

The conveniently-named “Fair Tax” is another prime example. Under a progressive income tax, people pay proportionately more in taxes as they make more money. That seems fair, because the wealthy can afford to pay more than the poor. However, under the “Fair Tax,” the tax burden is leveled out, and taxes are collected instead as a state or local sales tax while the income tax is abolished. It seems fair to some people that everyone pay a similar level of tax, no matter what their income is, but in reality this creates a situation that benefits the wealthy by allowing them to retain more of their money while placing a greater burden on those who have the least. Fair, or not fair? It depends upon your perspective.

If fairness is so subjective, how are we to decide what is fair? One answer is to have different definitions for different situations. For example, we may want the person who is having a heart attack to move to the front of the line at the emergency room, but we don’t mind the person who can pay the most being the one who is able to buy a fancy new iPhone. Another solution is to decide what version of fairness we want by observing which results bring us closer to the kind of world we want to live in. Would you rather live in a world that increases the gap between rich and poor by taxing everybody the same “fair” amount, or would you rather have wealth shared more widely by fair/unfair redistributive taxation? Are we willing to live with the consequences of choosing one kind of fairness over another, such as the winners proliferating and the losers fighting back however they can, because your version of “fair” seems quite unfair to them?

In the end, fairness isn’t usually as simple as cucumbers vs grapes, but the real world is never going to be perfect. The best we can do is muddle toward a less-flawed version of reality, but that brings up another complex question: less flawed, according to whom?

Having one's thumb on the scale can be the cause of an unfair result, or the way to make a skewed result more fair. Image by FOX 52, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Having one’s thumb on the scale can be the cause of an unfair result, or the way to make a skewed result more fair. Image by FOX 52, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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