What is fair? Does fairness matter?
"It's not fair!" is a common cry of children. "Life isn't fair." is a common adult rejoinder.
John Rawls was an American moral philosopher who died in 2002. Much of his thinking has been adopted by modern Western democracies. Rawls imagines that were we to design a society from scratch, we would build in a social contract. He considers that the basis of justice is to restore some of the fairness that nature and previous experience have omitted.
Rawls begins with the principle of liberty; establishing equal basic liberties for all citizens. 'Basic' liberty entails the freedoms of conscience, association, and expression as well as democratic rights; Rawls also includes a right to own personal property.
Rawls argues for a second principle of equality. To guarantee that liberties represent meaningful options for all in society he proposes distributive justice. Formal guarantees of political voice and freedom of assembly are of little real value to the desperately poor and marginalized in society. However, demanding that everyone have exactly the same effective opportunities in life would almost certainly offend the very liberties that are supposedly being equalized. Nevertheless, for our liberties to matter, wherever one ends up in society, one wants life to be worth living, with enough effective freedom to pursue personal goals. Thus Rawls affirms a two-part second principle comprising Fair Equality of Opportunity and the famous (and controversial) difference principle. This second principle ensures that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged.
In order to construct society as a thought experiment, Rawls proposed a 'veil of ignorance'. In other words he proposed that philosophers in designing society should not know where they would end up. The should assume that they might end up at the bottom and be as content with their design
One early way of ordering society was the feudal. Aristocrats, my virtue of birth are as a gift from the king could do pretty well what they liked while the peasants did what they were told. Very few societies operate on such principles today and most that do are almost universally condemned. A semblance of this former state exists where there are still monarchies, but in real life these are really an example of pageantry and a device to stop politicians getting too powerful.
A second way was the libertarian, exemplified by the American wild west and in a modified way still preferred by some of my readers. The problem with this is that upbringing and background still confers an unfair advantage to those who are the winners, even if the law is sufficient and enforced sufficiently to deter crooks and confidence tricksters.
Many espouse a meritocracy. But even here wealth and schooling confer an unfair advantage on some. As someone who rose to the top without any of these advantages, I remember resenting those who advanced more rapidly than I by virtue of their public school accents, straight teeth and Oxbridge contacts. My children had their teeth straightened, their accents adjusted to RP and at least one of them went to Oxford. These things can be corrected of course. Orthodontics is now available to all via the NHS, pains are being taken to make allowances at Oxbridge admissions for people without the benefit of a private education and resistance to regional accents is fading. More could be done to level the playing field, though it is hard to stop rich parents buying privilege for their children.
I have always felt that credit should be given to those who by dint of hard work and application made their way to the top except that I have not made sufficient allowance for the birth order effect. Seventy per cent of Harvard students are the first-born in their families. I was the first-born in mine. Although you might credit me for raising myself above my roots, there can be no merit in being born first.
Rawls therefore proposes a fourth solution: a society based on meritocracy where social manipulation aids the least gifted - social housing, nursery education, free health care etc with higher taxes for the rich. The problem with this is that the rich will just move elsewhere, where the taxes are lower. The trick is to make the standard of living such that even though the taxes are high they are better off staying put. Then you have the problem of immigration, much of which will be illegal.
The trouble with life is it's just not fair. But that is also its challenge.