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Why Fairness Should Not Be the Foundation of Liberalism September 15, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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“It’s so unfair” is one of the first morally-based complaints that  children make, and as adults, unfairness can get our hackles up. Even some animals seem to have a sense of fairness. Some versions of liberal theory treat fairness as the most fundamental political value. But fairness is a highly contested concept, fraught with ambiguity and should not be the basis of liberal political theory.

Is it fair that Alex Rodriquez makes millions of dollars but people equally talented and far more useful to society earn a fraction of his salary?

According to one meaning of “fairness” there is nothing unfair about Rodriquez’s salary. If by “fair” we mean that rules are applied equally to everyone, then assuming A-Rod and the Yankees freely entered into their contract, both parties are playing by the rules of contractual agreement—every other player and team has the same opportunity to negotiate.

Fairness understood as “equally subject to rules” is an important value but it is limited because the rules themselves may be unfair. One might argue that a compensation scheme that permits the marginally more talented Rodriquez to earn an astronomically higher salary than other players is itself unfair; or that a compensation scheme that pays a talented entertainer or athlete more than a doctor or teacher is unfair.

The intuition behind this kind of judgment is that fairness is tied to what one deserves.  If we base what someone deserves on their contribution to society then Rodriquez probably doesn’t deserve his salary. But what is the proper basis for what philosophers call desert claims?

One dominant strand of liberalism has a general answer to this question. We deserve a distribution of goods based on our efforts and choices. But since none of us choose our families or genetic heritage, and how we do in life is dependent on such factors that are outside our control, it is not obvious that we deserve anything. Rodriquez was just lucky to have the genetic endowment and developmental opportunities he had. But his birthright is not deserved; and neither is that of someone disadvantaged by birth. This entails that a society based on fairness, on what people deserve, should compensate people for their bad luck, since they don’t deserve their fate, and such a society should refuse to excessively compensate the fortunate because they don’t deserve their advantages.

But this is a problem for liberalism because: (1) it is counter-intuitive from the standpoint of common sense, and thus citizens will resist it. Most people are morally bothered only by intentional unfairness. We seem to accept unfairness when it is a matter of luck but don’t like it when someone is stacking the deck against us, and (2) such a compensation scheme will crowd out other things we value.

Sometimes getting good outcomes requires that we tolerate unfairness. It may be unfair that talented, diligent workers are laid off in times of economic contraction but it may be necessary to save the firm. It may be unfair to put federal money into saving Wall St. bankers while more deserving people lost out in the financial collapse. But doing so may have saved the financial system. Enhancing the capabilities and resources of the already talented and successful will sometimes produce goods that benefit everyone even though that seems unfair to the less gifted who may be denied those resources.  Achievement is likely only under conditions where people who are already fortunate are allowed to continue to flourish.

Regardless of how many resources we devote to it, we can never prevent bad luck from influencing outcomes without disabling the fortunate which is itself a morally monstrous thing to do.

Life isn’t fair. But there is not much we can do about that.

How then should liberals think about treatment of the disadvantaged?

What is morally disturbing is not that one person might have been lucky in life’s lottery and another less fortunate—rather it is morally disturbing that some person has too few resources and capabilities to lead a decent life. It is more important to arrange social institutions to enable the less fortunate to flourish than it is to ensure fairness or equality.

We should aim at improving the condition of the worst off, not because their condition is unfair, but because we are concerned about their welfare. Compassion not fairness is the foundation of liberalism.

We cannot disentangle questions of fairness from questions of what one deserves. But determining what one deserves requires separating out good or bad fortune from what one is genuinely responsible for—and this is an impossible task. None of us really know where our capabilities, personality or character traits come from. What is clear is that, for the most part, we didn’t choose them. Thus, aiming at the fair outcome involves us in lots of contentious, unanswerable questions. It lacks moral clarity and allows conservatives to co-opt the moral high ground by injecting questions about deservingness into any discussion about the distribution of resources.

The current dustup about illegal immigrants receiving  health care is an example of how excessive focus on fairness harms liberalism. It would be far better for all of us if illegal immigrants received health insurance, since they would be less susceptible to disease, more productive, and less a burden on emergency services. Conservatives rail that they don’t deserve it—and conservatives are right. They probably don’t.

But that should be irrelevant; compassion and a concern for our collective health should be the over-riding response. But one reason why what one deserves continues to be relevant is because liberals keep insisting on the foundational importance of fairness.

 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Michael Mussachia - September 16, 2009

Thought provoking post. While there are clearly some problems with fairness as a primary liberal goal, we can work towards less inequitable opportunity so far as unequal opportunity is a function of social arrangements largely imposed by those who differentially benefit from such inequity. A kid born into a rich family obviously has more opportunities to realize his/her potential than a kid born into a poor family. The rich have more opportunity to acquire more wealth than the not-so-rich do – hence the increasing concentration of wealth at the top of our society, which is mainly due simply to the greater opportunity wealth has to generate more wealth. (It’s a positive feedback kind of thing.) I agree that fairness and what people deserve constitute both a philosophical and a social can of worms, but as Dwight pointed out, people don’t like to have the deck stacked against them. Everybody wants a chance to succeed; everyone wants a decent opportunity to get ahead. As we all know, our jungle capitalist system is not optimized to provide this. All sorts of social conditions produce a huge stacking of the deck. Dwight might very well be right that liberals have put too much emphasis on fairness rather than rational compassion (as with his healthcare for illegal immigrants example), but Americans want to be treated – as they put it themselves – fairly, at least in terms of the opportunities made available to them, as has been partially implemented with public education, the occasional government-sponsored job training programs, and so forth. Just as with fairness, there is no way to completely level the starting gates and the track itself, but there are social measures (as done in Scandinavian countries) that can help reduce the really gross inequities in opportunity that result form the natural workings of market economies. Liberals can surely agree on this.
As for putting the emphasis on compassion, we all know what we will be (and already have been) called – “bleeding-heart liberals.” While it may have moral and rational (best for the whole society over the long run) social justification, it may not be the best PR approach. Besides, according to free market ideology, we’re all supposed to be wholly self-sufficient, and as Dwight showed very thoroughly in his book, most Americans have bought into this.

2. Paul J. Moloney - September 17, 2009

It might be that the rich and famous are being more unfair to themselves than they are to anybody else. If this were not true then we would have a reason to envy the rich and famous.

3. Jdk - April 10, 2015

But Fairness is the Foundation of liberalism. Without it, you wouldn’t be a liberal.

Remember Liberals will support the criminal and forget the victim. 0bama is supporting horrible Adversaries, Iran, Cuba, Russia etc. Meanwhile Israel is the villain. (The only beacon of Democracy in the Middle East). Why is this? Because the left can’t discriminate. There is no evil in the world and what’s good and right in the world is a result of unfairness. Concervatives accept that life is unfair because human discriminate. I may get the job because I’m taller, blacker, whiter or better looking…conservative accept that life is unfair and try to make it a better place with moral judgments of what’s right and Wrong. The liberal can’t do this. That’s why liberal talk radio does work…it’s not logical. Being Indiscriminate may work in the Utopian make believe world but not in the real world. By the way Conservatives are compassionate to those who want and do the right thing, based on judging people by their actions.

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