Skip to main content

The Philosophy of Fairness

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

We have developed the belief that all humans are equal, even when it’s obvious they are not. Some kids are terrific soccer players and score lots of goals. Other youngsters really suck at sports, but everybody gets a trophy at the end of the season. Is that fair?

Some children are absolute wizards at math, while others plod along with great difficulty. But, everybody gets to move up a grade at the end of the year. Is that fair?

Fairness Among Wildlife

On the plains of Africa and elsewhere, the concept of fairness is entirely unknown.

Lions kill gazelles. To lions, if they could grasp the concept, this seems fair; they have to eat meat to survive. To the gazelles, if they are capable of such complex thought, their status as being lunch for a big cat would seem unfair.

Humans who witness this natural act of a lion catching and eating its meal usually find it distressing. They see the contest as unfair; the lion has powerful limbs and sharp teeth and claws, the gazelle only has speed.

This contest between predator and prey plays out millions of times a day; sharks eat fish, spiders eat flies, humans eat steaks. So, if this is the way of things in the natural world, why do humans insist on fairness?

We are also part of the natural world. But, humans think of themselves as being above the tooth, claw, and venom world of Nature. However, wars, murders, gang violence, and sexual assault suggest humans are not far removed from the lion-and-gazelle world.

Different Forms of Fairness

Fairness comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. One view is that fairness is achieved through equality; everybody, as far as possible, gets the same-sized slice of pie. That would mean seniors should not get discounts off anything. Everybody would have to fly economy (or business, ha!). Handicapped children should muddle along as best they can in the classroom without extra help.

A second view is that fairness involves people getting only what they deserve. Someone who works hard and is successful should get to keep everything they have earned.

As noted by Professor Arthur Dobrin (Psychology Today) by this standard “Fairness means keeping what you deserve and deserving nothing if it isn’t earned. The hardest working, most diligent, smartest, and most talented should have more because of their attributes; the lazy, indifferent, stupid, and inept deserve to have less.” Sounds a bit harsh, but it’s a popular idea among society’s more fortunate people.

The complete opposite of that is fairness based on need. Those who have the most contribute to help those who have the least. This is founded on the notion that humans have obligations to one another because we are social animals and part of a variety of communities. Today, I’m helping out the less fortunate; tomorrow, I might need that help myself.

Those three versions of fairness can be applied to education. In option one, every student gets the same level of education. In option two, the best and brightest students are given the most resources. In the third option, the students most in need of extra help are allocated more resources.

Prof. Arthur Dobrin asks “Should schools be concerned with average children, children with the greatest potential, or those with the greatest need?”

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The Justice System

The Greek statue of justice that adorns courthouses around the world wears a blindfold. This is so that justice treats friends and strangers alike; that it does not deliver a more favourable verdict to rich people over poor people.

It’s a nice concept, but it doesn’t always work in the real world; sometimes, justice is horribly unfair.

Professor Carol Steiker teaches criminal law at Harvard University. She stuns her first-year students with some statistics quoted by The Harvard Gazette: “The United States jails a quarter of the world’s prisoners, although it contains only five percent of the world’s population.”

Prof. Steiker adds that America’s prisons “are overwhelmingly filled with poor people and people of color.”

What the Philosophers Say

Every major thinker says that justice and fairness (the words are used interchangeably) are central to the core of human morality. Well, that’s it then. Case closed.

Not so fast. We’re dealing with philosophers, which means there are conflicting viewpoints and, probably, more questions than answers.

Jonathan Wolff was asked to give a talk on fairness to a group of British government bureaucrats. They had been tasked with redesigning social programs and decided to first define fairness.

The chair of the committee told Professor Wolff “We thought that would be the easy bit, but we got into a bit of a tangle.” That’s because there is no single definition of fairness. Prof. Wolff suggests just two: “one prominent idea is that fairness needs some sort of reciprocity; getting back out what you have put in . . . A second idea is that fairness has to be responsive to need: those in greatest need should have first claim.”

Back to the social programs question. The American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) suggested a way of resolving the question of fairness. Cutting social program supports might be fair to the taxpayers who fund them, but unfair to the poor who receive them.

So, Professor Rawls said those who must decide what to do have to put themselves behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” This means asking what system would be fair if you didn’t know whether you were a claimant or a taxpayer. Clearly that is a very difficult thing to do. Just as making any decision about fairness is, although the I’ll-cut-the-pie-you-chose-which-piece-you-want rule might be a good place to start.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to The Guardian “The world’s eight richest people have [the] same wealth as [the] poorest 50 percent.”
  • The wealth of just two Canadians, Galen Weston Sr., (grocery stores) and David Thomson (media), is equal to that of 11 million Canadians.
  • Former U.S. President Donald Trump said the Nordstrom chain treated his daughter Ivanka “so unfairly” by no longer carrying her fashion lines. He complained media coverage of his firing of Michael Flynn was “very, very unfair.” And, he told the Coast Guard College graduating class “No politician in history has been treated more unfairly” than him.
Let's talk about fairness Mr. Trump.

Let's talk about fairness Mr. Trump.


  • “How Philosophy Could Help Iain Duncan Smith.” Jonathan Wolff, The Guardian, May 13, 2013.
  • “It’s Not Fair! But What Is Fairness?” Arthur Dobrin, Psychology Today, May 11, 2012
  • “2 Richest Canadians Have More Money Than 11 Million Combined.” Canadian Press, January 15, 2017.
  • “To Trump, Fairness Is Just Another Alternative Fact.” Mark Kingwell, Globe and Mail, February 21, 2017.
  • “The Costs of Inequality: A Goal of Justice, a Reality of Unfairness.” Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette, February 29, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor

Related Articles