The Problem with Fairness

When people say they are for "fair" prices or "fair" trade, what do they mean? Is there an objective conception of fairness or does it differ from person to person?

Steven E. Landsburg illustrates the dilemma with a parable:

?My dinner companion was passionate in her conviction that the rich pay less than their fair share of taxes. I didn?t understand what she meant by ?fair,? so I asked a clarifying question: Suppose that Jack and Jill draw equal amounts of water from a community well. Jack?s income is $10,000, of which he is taxed 10%, or $1,000, to support the well. Jill?s income is $100,000, of which she is taxed 5%, or $5,000, to support the well. In which direction is that tax policy unfair?

? I have thought about the issue in those terms quite a bit and am still unsure of my own answer. That?s why I hesitate to pronounce judgment on the fairness of tax policies. If I can?t tell what?s fair in a world with two people and one well, how can I tell what?s fair in a country with 250 million people and tens of thousands of government services??

- Steven E. Landsburg, The Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life,
(The Free Press, 1993), 49

How, indeed?

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Here's a defensible criteria

Here's a defensible criteria of justice: the fulfillment of legitimate expectations.

We will have to discuss what those expectations are, but we once we do, this is a very useful test. It's a classic process-oriented definition of justice (or "fairness"), and if you think about it, it's basically what people mean when they say "that's unfair".

You'll note also that it's just a version of the "Silver Rule": don't do to others what you don't want done to you. There are lots of good philosophical, economic, and biological arguments that the silver rule is as close to a moral law of nature as we can get.

Interesting criteria of

Interesting criteria of justice, Andrew. However, one has to ask the inevitable question, "what is a legitimate expectation?"

Which would seem to bring us back to the beginning, as communitarians think it is (generally speaking) always legitimate to subordinate individuals to state (er, 'community') control, while libertarians would disagree.

Stephan Kinsella, if I

Stephan Kinsella, if I recall correctly, wrote a piece about founding libertarian ethics on the Silver Rule-- only he called the rule "estoppel". Hoppe's "argumentation ethics" might also be considered a libertarian notion of fairness.

Pardon my heavy cynicism

Pardon my heavy cynicism when it comes to any ethical theories beyond truisms, butthis stuff is all bogus. For those still interested in ethics, let's try Kant: one of his major difficulties is with the formulation of the maxims to be used in the CI. Everybody following? We can formulate these rules to reflect our interests, and we do.

For instance- Jack could very easily claim that were he to be in Jill's position, he would want such a thing done to him.

Also present is a sort of "dirty" ethical theory championed by Bentham in his later years called "interpersonal comparisons of utility" in which it is possible to compare the value of money (in this instance) between people. It could be based on how much they have, but with other variables factored in. The simply conclusion is that $1 is a greater sum of money to Jack than it is to Jill, hence the discrepancy.

Pardon my heavy cynicism

Pardon my heavy cynicism when it comes to any ethical theories beyond truisms, butthis stuff is all bogus. For those still interested in ethics, let's try Kant: one of his major difficulties is with the formulation of the maxims to be used in the CI. Everybody following? We can formulate these rules to reflect our interests, and we do.

For instance- Jack could very easily claim that were he to be in Jill's position, he would want such a thing done to him.

I'm not following you at all.

Also present is a sort of "dirty" ethical theory championed by Bentham in his later years called "interpersonal comparisons of utility" in which it is possible to compare the value of money (in this instance) between people. It could be based on how much they have, but with other variables factored in. The simply conclusion is that $1 is a greater sum of money to Jack than it is to Jill, hence the discrepancy.

I find Bentham's argument weak and indefensible, especially since I do not believe interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible.

Matt, I agree that ethical

Matt, I agree that ethical theories can't get us much further than our starting intuitions, but they can help us determine whether our intuitions are internally consistent; that is to say, whether we are willing to apply the same standard in all cases, even cases where we would prefer a different standard for selfish reasons. I don't claim to be a Kantian, but I do think that some conception of the "Golden Rule" (or perhaps the Silver Rule) is a good basis for any ethical theory.

This is one of the best articles I've read recently on why we need an ethical theory and should not simply rely on intuition alone.

Jonathan, I'm not a huge fan of utilitarianism as an ethical theory either, but it seems almost self-evident to me that an additional dollar to Bill Gates is not as valuable to him as an additional dollar to some poor starving child living in Bangladesh.