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What is fairness?


The Today programme is exploring the theme of fairness in the week leading up to the government's spending review. Starting the series at the most abstract level, philosopher Dr Angie Hobbs explains the philosophy of fairness.

What do you think fairness is? Get in touch here.

A working definition of fairness might be "to attribute to each his or her due". It rests on the assumption that each person matters in themselves and is more than a number - to put it formally, persons are separate bearers of dignity and rights.

So any distributions, transactions or cuts which disregard the dignity and rights of the individual will, therefore, not be fair; in particular, there can be tensions between appeals to fairness and appeals to consequences, such as the "greatest good of the greatest number" advocated by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

One thing is crystal clear: any discussion of fairness must address every member of society - we cannot consider cuts in the public sector without looking at the private sector too, particularly if the need for public cuts has been partly caused by private sector activities.

However, such a view of fairness does not entail that each person should receive an exactly equal portion of whatever is being distributed, or receive precisely equal treatment.

It can be interpreted in this way, but most philosophers would argue for some form of proportionality of treatment - whether in respect of need, or merit, or a mixture of both.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham was more interested in consequences than fairness

For me, the most attractive interpretation is that each person is of equal worth and should have the opportunity - ideally, an equal opportunity - to access goods, but most of the goods themselves will be proportionally distributed, according to need in some cases and merit in others.

In order to work, such a scenario will depend on the provision of healthcare, education and information for all: any government that does not support these in practice as well as in rhetoric is not a fair government.

In deciding upon fair distributions, we must consider their impact upon social groups as wholes.

Otherwise, cuts which can look fair viewed separately can accumulate in ways which unfairly target a particular socio-economic, generational or regional group.

Indeed, we need to ensure that no particular group feels uncared-for or excluded, whether we do this employing the language of fairness or social harmony and a shared civic life.

There is a case for saying that a few - just a few - services and benefits should apply to all irrespective of income, to ensure that everyone feels part of the society which their taxes support.

We also need to consider what kind of society we want, and what is needed to construct it, before deciding on fair distributions and cuts.

It is no good simply saying grandly "each government department needs to be cut by 23%", if one of these departments is entirely redundant - if, for example, it has the sole purpose of counting windows prior to the levying of the Window Tax - a tax that was abolished in 1851.

And we need to be honest about why we care about fairness anyway. Do we care about it for itself - which we should do if we view people as separate holders of dignity and rights?

Or is it because we think fairness will be an effective means to some other end - reducing the deficit, say, or improving the welfare of the worst off?

There is clearly potential for tension here - in a speech in August, Chancellor George Osborne called fairness the "second guiding principle" (growth being the first); whereas last month Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argued that fairness is "social mobility" and that social mobility is the "overriding priority".

What happens if growth and social mobility clash, or is the Coalition claiming that in practice they never will?

We want to know what you think fairness is. Can you define it? Get in touch using the form below or join the debate on Twitter or Facebook .


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