Some Thought on Fairness
Updated: Jan 9
Fairness is one of the two values that I believe are important pillars to having a good and enjoyable life, alongside Truth. The two are closely linked but are not the same. Truth is required in order to identify fairness but whereas the truth is objective, fairness is subjective. Fairness can be thought about without any complexity and we will all agree to the nature of it. If six biscuits are to be shared between two people, we all agree that it is fair to have three each. But what if one of those people claim to be hungry and the other claims to have recently eaten and is therefore not hungry. How would you allocate the biscuits? Perhaps four and two, or five and one. How would you arrive at correct allocation now that we have introduced even the most straightforward layer of complexity? Come to think about it, who are you to make this decision?
This simple example is thought provoking because if you asked 100 people, you are likely to get a variety of answers. This is the subjectivity at play. My personal belief is that the additional information is not relevant and that the only fair solution is to give the two people their equal share of three biscuits each. The person that is not hungry is then free to give some or all of their biscuits to their hungry counterpart if they so choose. There are so many reasons that I think this is the only fair solution. Firstly, we cannot be sure that the person that says they are hungry truly is or that the person says that they are not hungry isn’t – there could be any number of reasons to be dishonest in these circumstances from either party. If you ever find yourself to be the person in charge of the biscuits, simple mathematical division is the only way to remain impartial. You may be inclined not to remain impartial. Maybe you do not have faith that the person that is not hungry will do what you would do by sharing their portion as they do not need it as badly, so you make that decision for them. The fall-out from you taking that decision away from them could be endless. You have proven to them that you do not trust them to do the right thing, and presumed to know better than them what the right thing to do is. Do not be surprised if the next time you are in charge of handing out biscuits, that person says they are especially hungry. You have incentivised them to say this. I think this example is pretty straightforward and I hope, after some consideration, most people would divide the biscuits evenly and allow people to make their own choices. If not, if you think you know better and are willing to act on this belief as soon as you acquire some tiny morsel of control, it will likely not end well. Giving out equal shares, as well as being the only fair option, has the added benefit of encouraging cooperation. In the example we used, both parties would gain from improving their relationship beyond making a new friend. If they improve their relationship, they will be inclined to help one another out when biscuits are being handed out. For example, I am larger than my partner is and this comes into play both a meal times and throughout our lives. We have an unspoken agreement that when dinner is served, although we have equal access to the food, the bigger portion is always mine. Similarly, when we have been to the shops and have a car full of bags, the heavier bags are mine. This works without us ever discussing it. It is natural and allows for exceptions. If she is especially hungry, her food portion might be the same as mine and if I have a broken arm, she might take the heavy bags. We work together because we have a good relationship.
Fairness when handing out biscuits is reasonably straightforward, even when some complexity is added. Fairness becomes even more subjective when we introduce differing levels of ability, strength, power and control. For instance, if two people are competing to pick the most apples from a tree in one hour. One of these people is a 6ft adult and the other is a 4ft child – there is a clear advantage for the adult as he can reach higher. Is it then fair to implement something to act as an equaliser, such as a 2ft stool for the child? Some will think the introduction of the stool is the very thing that makes the contest fair, others will think that making alterations for one party and not the other is unfair. Both assessments seem to be at least logical. My belief is that we should not introduce the stool, but rather we should accept this competition as a mismatch which the adult is likely, almost certain, to win. Although the stool will even things to a degree and we will see a more competitive race, evening things is not the same as fairness. Some people are better at certain things than others. Fairness in competition is about allowing all to play by the same rules and to discover who is better. You may have been swayed by the fact that the 4ft person was a child and we feel protective over children. That is natural. But what if it was two adults and there was a difference on 2ft, would the stool still seem appropriate or would you simply recommend that the two individuals find a more even competitor? The worst thing about assisting the shorter person in this fictional scenario is that you are robbing them of any potential for real success. Even if they win, their counterpart will claim that it was only because of the helping hand that they got. If the shorter person loses despite the helping hand that they received, this will only exasperate the loss and cause the loss to feel worse. The pressure automatically switches from one party to the other. This was displayed recently in the world of boxing. A fight was scheduled between Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jr. Eubank was the heavy favourite and the public sentiment was that it was a risky fight to take because although he was very likely to prevail, he was expected to do that, so it was an empty win. The notion was that if Benn overcame the odds and won the fight, that would be career-defining. The fight was a no-win for the favourite and a no-lose for the underdog. Then something happened. Conor Benn failed a drug test. Despite this failed test, for a number of days the fight was scheduled to go ahead (which is a whole other story). Although it is impossible to say how much benefit the underdog got from the alleged drug in his system, if any, the sentiment had completely changed. This is because the underdog was given, or had taken, a perceived advantage. If Benn had won this fight, which would have been thought of as career-defining days earlier, it would have seemed empty. If Eubank had won, he would have overcome and the win would have been huge for him and even if he lost, he could say he lost because of the unfair advantage his opponent had. Eubank's career would likely have went unaffected by a loss. Thankfully the fight was eventually called off, but for a few days you could see the genuine change in public sentiment when there was an advantage given to the underdog. The only fair outcome would have been to both follow the same rules and see who was the better man on the night, despite the fact that virtually everyone agreed the Chris Eubank Jr had a superior skillset.
Fairness is in some sense equality and there appears to be a debate around equality. This is typically between proponents of “equality of opportunity” and of “equality of outcome”. As you will have likely discovered already, I favour fairness in opportunity. I will try to outline the difference between the two. Fairness of opportunity means that you are free to try anything you want but the level of success will be a result of your overall skillset (including effort). Fairness of outcome means that everyone should have the same result regardless of their overall skillset (including effort). To put the differences into reality, fairness of opportunity is a 100m race that anyone can enter. Everyone starts running from the starting line at the same time and who ever crosses the finishing line first wins. Fairness of outcome is to have a finishing line but no starting line, then painstakingly trying to figure out exactly how far each individual can run in 10 seconds and then giving them their own individual starting line and allowing them to run – inevitably they will all cross the finishing line at the same time. If there is any win in that, it is from knowing that you were given less assistance than another by starting the run further from the finish line. This means that there is no visible success stories but that those the get the most assistance still feel like losers. In the first version of the race, there is excitement to see who wins. I am not even sure if there is a point to the second race and, in fact, I think it is harmful. In the case of the second race, when going through the painstaking effort of trying to figure out each person’s starting point, there is no incentive for anyone to put in any effort. Effort is actually disincentivised because it will only place you further from the finishing line that you are required to cross at the same time as the rest anyway. We should be able to enter any race we want, try anything we want and compete in any arena but the essence of fairness is that we should all follow the same rules and see who wins. This is how we incentivise effort and improvement and how we create a sense of pride in success. Equality of outcome eliminates pride and success and appears to only do that so that the people that would not otherwise achieve success do not feel bad, even if they only cannot achieve it because of a lack of effort.
Playing by the same rules should be a requirement in all aspects of life, not just competition. That is why we find hypocrites to be so infuriating, especially when we perceive them to have a degree of power. The lazy boss that demands unrealistic workloads, the politicians sneakily breaking rules that they put in place, the school teacher swearing in front of students or the police officer doing anything wrong at all. These things anger people because of the hypocrisy more than anything else. To prove this, go to your favourite search engine or YouTube and type in “police officer speeding”. Read which ever article or video that comes up and see how it is viewed. We all, or at least most of us, will go over speed limits from time to time. Even if you are someone who doesn’t, you will appreciate that many do and it will not bother you much. If police do it, on or off duty, it might annoy you a little more. We hold people to rules more stringently if they play some part in creating or enforcing them, but we must be careful not to overplay this. A police officer speeding does not mean that they are willing to break all the rules that they enforce or that all police officers are guilty of unlimited hypocrisy. We should judge a police officer speeding in the same way we judge any other person speeding. And you should expand that to the rest of society. You should not judge the actions of a stranger any harsher that the actions of a friend, if it is the same action. As a rule, I try to judge the action and the person separately – although this can be tricky. Here is an example. Take these two sentences; My mother slapped a woman. A woman slapped my mother. With this basic knowledge and not knowing any reasoning or justification for the slap, you have to judge the action rather than who performed it. If you judge slapping to be a bad thing, then it has to be bad in both cases. This does not mean that you judge your mother to be a bad person, but when the sentence is inverted, you will probably judge the other woman to be a bad person. That might not seem fair – again this is subjective, but I can justify why in spite of judging the action and not the person that I might arrive at the differing judgements of the people. In this case, I am judging both actions in the same way – as bad, but there is a further separate judgement to be made on the people. When it comes to your mother, you have so much more information to judge her on and it is the culmination of all of it the will comprise your judgement of her as a person, but if this is the only thing you know about the other woman, it might make sense to have a negative judgement on her, albeit with limited information.
All told, fairness is pretty subjective and requires some thought before you can decide what you think is fair but I think that we should always be striving for fairness and considering if what we initially think is fair, really is so. This consideration requires honesty, careful thought and eventually the conviction to stand by and act on what you think is fair even when others do not agree. Do not fall into the trap of justifying every action of people you like in order to avoid the acceptance that the judgement of one’s actions do not mean the judgement of the person.
Thank you for reading. As always, I welcome feedback and further conversation on the topic. You can reach out to me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org