Fairness, Whatever that Is


A thought on philosophy, fairness, and, unfortunately, politics. I'll try to keep the "politics" bit short. There is an answer to the question "why study philosophy" I once came across and has stuck with me. It was sort of in two parts: (heavily paraphrased, of course.)
  1. "Learning about the deep truths of the universe and our nature is an inherent good. Knowledge is better than ignorance."

    This is the high-minded, idealistic snobbish answer, although my brother Arthur wants it noted that it is also selfish. He may be right, but if so, so is a lot of other knowledge.

  2. "The questions that philosophy deals with underlie a lot of the major disagreements in the world. In the end, these are the questions that people fight wars over."

    This is the low-minded (is that a real term?), practical answer. But only sort of, because these questions rarely have a simple answer, and even if it did, one person knowing the answer wouldn't resolve the disagreement.

This second answer is the one that interests me here.

The first thing I want to note is that it claims too much. The US civil war, for example, was arguably fought over who had the finally authority to interpret the Constitution. Options were the Supreme Court, who held it allowed slavery anywhere in the country, or the President (currently Abraham Lincoln), who held that it did not. To me, that sounds like a legal question (not a moral one). But it is still extremely abstract.

The other problem is that it's too narrow. The disagreements start far before war breaks out, and a lot of them get resolved peacefully. U.S. society has changed a lot over the last 150 years, but there hasn't been even one civil war. Instead, we resolve the questions politically. I wholeheartedly approve, and I think pretty much everyone else does too. No one has to die this way.

It seems to me that modern politics (I warned you) revolves around the question of what is fair. We all agree that we want a fair society, but we disagree on what that means. As I understand it, the two underlying theories are: There isn't a simple answer to which of these is "real" fairness. In fact, to me it seems that they are distinct concepts that just happen to use the same English word. Now, the natural world clearly runs on the first approach, which, at first thought, might provide an answer for deists. But I don't think "godliness is goodness" is a real deist doctrine, so scratch that idea.

In modern politics the right-left spectrum lines up with this reasonably well, with the right wanting the same rules and the left wanting the same outcomes. But not to an extreme degree. I don't know of any major political party anywhere that wants laissez-faire capitalism (on the right) or all-out communism (on the left). For all that some people like to demonize their political enemies and complain about interest groups, the system is still working pretty well. And yes, I do include Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in that; I have been hearing complaints about not enough real choice since I was young. Now that there is real choice, you have to suffer through it.

And now, I have finally worked my way around to my point. I think that a lot of political trouble comes because people forget that the two definitions of fairness are different. This leads to the idea that if people want the same things, and work equally hard at it, they should get the same results. Both sides of the spectrum do this.

The right sees the same rules and different outcomes, and concludes that there must be a difference in choice or effort. Thus, poverty and social inequalities generally become almost a moral failing. We are on top because we deserve it.

The left sees the same effort and different outcomes, and concludes that rules (or maybe the starting conditions) must be biased. Thus, a difference in outcomes means that people are cheating in order to hold onto power. Fight oppression! End discrimination today!

The are bits of truth in both of these, of course. Most of the people on top of society do work really hard. But there are a lot of people at the bottom who work hard too. All U.S. Presidents before Barak Obama were white, which which probably was not a coincidence. But even if they had all been black, there would still be about the same number of black people who didn't get the job. And that's not even counting the increasing fraction of U.S. population that is neither black nor white.

It's all very confusing. I can see why we still haven't worked out a good solution yet. Maybe some new terminology would help, but I doubt it. I think philosophy is inherently hard.

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