A Fair Society

[Back to Social Challenges: Difficult Equality Issues]


Let us admit at the start: we do not know what a fair society looks like - which makes working to achieve a fair society quite tricky.

Much of the campaigning undertaken by equalities groups is, either explicitly or implicitly, directed at achieving a fair society - or, at least, a fair society for the members of our equalities group.  The initial goals tend to be straightforward, campaigning against an obvious injustice - paying women less for the same work, or policemen killing black people with impunity.  The big question for equalities groups is what they do once the obvious injustices have been addressed - or are well on the way to baeing addressed, and are not as big and shocking as they once were.

The problem of identifying what a fair society looks like is not just an issue for people who are working as part of an equalities group.  Society contains many competing groups, which each have differing access to resources, power, opportunity and freedoms: it is not always clear whether these differences are the result of good and healthy activity, or injustice - is the shop keeper successful as a result of hard work, or of cheating the customers?  Inequality does not always mean injustice.

And injustice is not just present-tense: some of it is historical.  You can't change the past, but can you right the wrongs of the past without introducing new wrongs into the present - punishing people for the sins of their ancestors?  And if you can, how far back should you go?  Could Anglo-Saxons seek redress for the suffering caused by the Norman invasion?

Difficulties with Fairness


Inequality does not always mean injustice, but it is not always clear when the inequality is fair.  How level does the playing field need to be?  Children who work hard tend to do better at school, which seems fair.  But some children have parents who encourage them to work hard, and some do not; some children have books and stimulating discussion at home, and some do not; some children are physically and sexually abused at home, and some are not.  Some children have a better start than others.  We can (if we choose) offer support to the economically disadvantaged children, but this does not result in a fair comparison when it comes to exams.

And people vary in the things they are interested in and value: this variety is generally considered to be a good thing, but it results in unequal outcomes.  To state the obvious, people who put family before job tend to have a happier family life and less success in the workplace.  Both options are valid choices, but society does not value them equally.  One reason why women generally have less success in the workplace than men - fewer senior roles and lower pay - is because they often have different priorities, for example, they often prioritize caring for their children more than men do: is this a valid choice which should be respected, or an injustice which should be corrected?  And if it is an injustice, how do you correct a person's priorities?

In a recent interview with Jonathan Haidt, he notes that 75% of the people who write letters to a certain newspaper are male, but the paper intends to ensure that only 50% of the published letters are from men.  Does this create greater equality or greater inequality?  Of course, you can work to encourage more women (or perhaps fewer men) to write to the paper, but what is the right course of action before you succeed?  And how do you calculate the time and money you should spend on righting this inequality, when there are almost certainly similar inequalities in the number of letters from people who belong to ethnic minorities, religious minorities, sexual preference minorities, and so on?

Some inequality is created by personal activity, the result of people making deliberate (but not always conscious) choices about others, such as people being rejected for jobs because of their disability or the colour of their skin.

Some inequality is structural, the result of the way society is organized: to join most professions, you need to be socially comfortable with people who are well off, and you often need significant financial resources to support you through a low paid internship - there are no rules to say that poor people can't do the job, but there are serious practical barriers in place.

And some inequality is the result of individual preferences and expectations concerning the choice of a career - which is influenced by very many factors (one of which being the presence of visible role models) which are hard to identify and impossible to measure.  We know that fewer women than men chose STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, but we don't know why.  Some of the reason will be the result of prejudiced teachers and traditional barriers, but some of it is likely to be be the result of people choosing to do the things they find interesting and fulfilling. 

Many Inequalities

To state the obvious: there are many different sources of inequality.  Some forms of inequality have (sometimes well-resourced) campaign groups fighting for their side, some are recognised in UK law (race, sex, religion and disability for example), and some have neither - tall people are paid more, but nobody seems to be campaigning for fiar pay for short people.

And every time you hear someone fighting for justice, they are always fighting for justice for 'my' group - the group they are representing at that time.  A few people will campaign against multiple forms of injustice, but each campaign is always a campaign for this particular group.

In effect, our current framework involves us pitting all the disadvantaged groups against each other: they are competing for our attention, our compassion and our money.  Every reform requires time and money, so every reform which seeks to benefit this group means there is less time and money available to address the needs of that group - which is possibly one reason why the members of many reform groups seem to be so insensitive of the needs of other disadvantaged groups.

Fighting for Fairness

We can see injustice, and can often see what can be done to address ir, so do we need to worry about the end point - isn't it enough to get on with improving the world here and now?

Pragmatically, we can't be worrying about the end goal all the time: we do have to just get on with addressing the small bits we can do something about.  This whole site is based on the idea that we should get on with making the world a better place, and not wait until we have all the answers sorted out before we act.

But alongside a pragmatic and compassionate response to the needs we can do something about, there are several reasons why we do need to think about the end goal - or, at least, the long run.

  • Priorities.  Working on the first injustice which springs to mind is understandable, but it probably results in our energies being spent on small and relatively unimportant issues, when we could potentially be making a much bigger impact by working on a more strategic issue.
  • Partners.  We have to choose who we work alongside, but it is important to know where we stand with each other - are they allies, or simply co-travellers?
  • Perspective.  We need to see the wider picture and the longer term in order to understand the true impact of our choices.  In the short run, allowing a stranger to hurt my child seems clearly wrong, but when it is a doctor giving a vaccination that will protect their life and health in the future, allowing a small, momentary pain turns out to be the right thing to do.  So how long and how wide a perspective is required before we can make a judgement?

What is Fair?

Our usual assumption is that we can work to increase fairness, addressing injustices as we go - ideally, in order of their significance, prioritizing the worse examples, until we are eventually left with injustices which are so small that they are not worth the effort of solving them.

But we can't agree on the significance of injustices - this is one aspect of the fundamental flaw in Utilitarianism: we cannot compare apples with pears, especially when they are my apples and your pears.  And, if you attempt to compare them, you need to understand that they are not just apples: my apples have a cultural significance, so even touching them would be highly offensive.  There comes a time when making life more fair for me means making life less fair for you.

It gets worse: we almost always look up, and compare up.  We invariably look at the people above us, and want (some of) what they have.  We almost never look down, and want to give those who are weaker and poorer some of the wealth and power we have.  I am very aware of the injustices I suffer at the hands of the rich and powerful; I am much less aware of the benefits I gain from unjust trade agreements the rich Western countries have imposed on the developing world.

Similarly, we always look around.  We see the people around us, and compare ourselves to them.  A rich middle-class professional will predominantly mix socially with other rich middle-class professionals, a jet-setting successful entertainer with other jet-setting successful entertainers - and a petty criminal with other petty criminals.  We do not see ourselves in absolute terms, we compare ourselves against the people around us.  We don't see the invisible people, we don't hear the ones who have no voice - either because they have no voice, or because it does not reach us.

An Unfair Past

Many injustices are historic, which creates another level of impossible challenges.

The people against whom the injustice was committed are all dead, and there is no agreed method of compensating people for harm done to their ancestors.

Historic injustice will inevitably have many complex consequences which we cannot trace - we cannot repeat history with that detail changed and discover the actual consequences.  And, while money tends to flow through the generations, sometimes the harm done to our ancestors turns out to have given us some real advantages.  Closing the mines destroyed many communities and caused massive hardship, but many people are now alive because they did not die quickly in mining accidents or slowly as a result of the dust they inhaled.

Consequences ripple out, with no end.  Slave owners were compensated by the government when slavery was abolished, which seems horribly unjust to us today - but without that payment, slavery would not have been abolished then, and perhaps never.  And the slave owners then used that money to employ staff and purchase goods and services, all the employed staff then spent their wages in many different ways, and all this economic activity continued to stimulate yet more activity.  After a few years, to some extent, almost everyone in the country would probably have gained some benefit from it.  And the money the government spent will have influenced its subsequent spending and activity in various ways we cannot calculate some of it would have been used to do good, but perhaps some of it would have been spent on yet another war somewhere.

There is no fair starting point.  National boundaries have always moved, and anyone who demands that they be returned to a previous position is simply choosing a date which suits their agenda - other dates will produce other, equally arbitrary, boundaries.  Should Greece demand the return of all the land which Alexander the Great ruled?

Nobody - no people group - is entirely innocent.  The people who were harmed had themselves harmed others - or were the descendants of those who had.  The British committed atrocities in India, but the Indians had been committing atrocities themselves before the British arrived, and the British made some attempt to end some of those atrocities.  This does not justify what the British did, but if the British should pay compensation for the harms they committed, should not the Indians also pay compensation for the harms they committed?

Increasing Fairness

The usual assumption is that we can work to increase fairness, addressing injustices as we go - ideally, in order of their significance, prioritizing the worse examples, until we are eventually left with injustices which are so small that they are not worth the effort of solving them.

But we can't agree on the significance of injustices - this is one aspect of the fundamental flaw in Utilitarianism: we cannot compare apples with pears, especially when they are my apples and your pears.  And, if you attempt to compare them, you need to understand that they are not just apples: they have a cultural significance, so touching them would be highly offensive.  There comes a time when making life more fair for me means making life less fair for you.

Inherited wealth is one of the basic sources of injustice: some people inherit significant benefits, in many forms, and some people inherit almost nothing in material terms and suffer from parental neglect or abuse.  Rich people have the luxury of investing in their children's education and skills, with coaching and lessons outside school as well as small classes in school.  And why should they not invest their money this way?  Why should they not seek to give their children the best possible start in life?

Defining Fairness

The problems boil down to a fundamental difficulty: we have at least three incompatible ways of understanding fairness.  Option one is to give everyone the same; option two is to give everyone what they need; and option three is to give everyone what they deserve.

We can plan to give everyone the same: it is, in principle at least, understandable.  But nobody would be happy with this strategy.  Educate everyone to the same level?  Or educate everyone for the same number of years?  Pay everyone the same?  Make everyone have the same number of children?  As soon as you start to think what it might mean, the problems are obvious.

We can aim to give everyone what they need: the basic communist commitment.  But who decides what I need?  And meeting my 'need', when you think about it, is a remarkably low target: humans can survive on very little when they have to.  We don't actually need freedom, or decent housing - as has been demonstrated over and over again.

Or we can aim to give everyone what they deserve, so those who work harder, or who have the ability to contribute more to society can receive more.  But this has the same problem as before - who decides what is fair?  Does a pop star deserve to earn more than a nurse?  Does a banker deserve to earn more than a teacher?

What is the answer?

I can't see an answer to the problem as given, so we need to redefine the problem - to understand it in another way.

The discussion about creating a fair society is mainly concerned with dividing up resources - mostly goods, experiences and opportunities.  The problem, as usually described, operates within an evolutionary framework: both individuals and groups compete with other individuals and groups for control of the resources required to achieve increased safety and success.  These resources are inevitably limited, so if one individual or group gains more control, another must have less - in other words, we fight over how to divide up the pie.

The Marxist answer is to replace competition with cooperation, which sounds like a really good idea - but this cooperation needs to be externally imposed and enforced.  So you no longer (in theory) have individuals and groups competing for resources, but instead you have the state distributing the resources as it sees fit.  The disadvantages are fairly obvious: the system creates systemic corruption which cannot be addressed (the state will not give resources to those who seek to question or challenge ts decisions), and it undermines our natural incentive to work hard and innovate.

The Christian answer (that is, the answer proposed by Jesus and the first Christians) is the Kingdom of God.  As members of God's Kingdom, our aim is not our personal happiness and success: our aim is to love others - to seek and work for their happiness and success; we do not work against the interests of anyone, because this love is to be extended to all - to every human being, and to all creation.  This cannot be legislated for, there is no system which can deliver it, but when people are inspired by this vision and liberated from the belief that I must prioritize my own self interest (look after 'number one') then things which seemed impossible can turn out to be surprisingly easy.

Are there other other answers which people wish to offer?  Please let me know, and I will add them.


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