On fairness

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Fairness enjoys a reputation perhaps more generous than is actually deserved. It is, of course, an important idea but, if it is the greater good you are interested in, fairness is no guarantee it will be secured. More likely an existing conflict will be defused. That can be important but it is just as important not to confuse the two.

On fairness

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 September 2012

The most inspiring principles are aspirational. Ideas like excellence, progress, opportunity, all have inherent to them the possibility of betterment, as they allude to something not yet realised. Thus, they are used to motivate and, in politics, to try and illustrate the benefits of change, policy or ideology.

To that list the idea of fairness is mistakenly added. The suggestion is made that the pursuit of fairness involves some sort of collective ambition. But it is not ambitious, rather a relative undertaking, and one easily forgets that, if it is fairness you are trying to attain then, by default, it is unfairness you must currently have. Hence you often hear of ‘a fairer deal’, an attempt to cover both bases: fairness now, more fairness in the future.

Fairness suffers from its own promise. By its nature, any determination as to what is fair necessitates a determination as to what is not fair. But most people project onto it their own interests; that is, they assume fairness will always result in what they believe to be fair being upheld. When it is not, most often they argue the outcome unfair; indeed, the very process biased. They have an interest in fairness only in so far as it protects them and that is how it is generally understood. Thus, it has at its heart personal interest, as opposed to the greater good.

In turn, the advocates of fairness forget that, as the arbiter in this regard, they are just as likely to disappoint as they are to please.

Justice has many connotations and, of them, the implication that its enforcement might not be to the benefit of all parties is thus a critical one.

Justice demands one identify the greater good, as it exists outside of personal interest. So it is outward-looking and aspirational. Fairness suggests personal interests be balanced or appeased in and of themselves. And so it is inward-looking and pragmatic.

Equality works in the same way. Because a ‘fair’ outcome is a relative one, it needn’t mean all affected parties are now equal, merely that an agreement has been reached. And so fairness lends itself to compromise and appeasement in a way equality does not.

It is true justice is not always accepted as just but, ironically, it is far more widely accepted as fair in the public mind than fairness itself. It suggests and is understood to mean a decision that is right, regardless of one’s vested interest in a particular outcome.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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