It has been well established at this point that fairness is a basic human moral intuition, which also exists in other primates. This has been demonstrated by applying the Ultimatum Game (where one person is given the choice of how to share a certain amount of money with another person, who is free to then reject the offer and void the reward for both of them if ey is unsatisfied) to a wide variety of human cultures and to other primate species.
What these experiments do show is that while the exact definition of fairness is culture-dependent, it exists everywhere. Furthermore, it’s been found that the more a species cooperates with non-kin, the more extensive their concept of fairness becomes, showing the evolutionary basis of this behavior.
So far so good. But how do we get from something simple like sharing 100$ between two people to a social framework of what’s fair and what’s not? How do we get from “meat is shared amongst all the hunters” to “we should have a higher minimum wage”?
I want to start with one specific example of a debate around fairness in order to try to see how to articulate it: wages and prices. I think this is close enough to the Ultimatum Game, and yet it is a strictly modern, capitalist sort of debate.
We get people who say things like: the market price for labor is necessarily fair, because you can only determine the value of anything through the exercise of offer and demand. I have already debunked the Subjective Theory of Value, which is just subjectivism writ large. So the latter half of the statement is simply false.
But let’s go further. People who defend the fairness of market prices argue that any government intervention distorts people’s choices and returns undesirable outcomes. But corporations also intervene in prices, and distort people’s choices all the time. The difference, we are told, is that the government acts coercively and corporations are market agents just like you and me.
This of course is bullshit at many levels. But it also links us to the narrow meaning of political words. Any definition of fairness which consider anything beyond coercion as fair is limited to fairness1, and is therefore too narrow for our purposes.
Like any other socio-political word, we have to examine how narrowly it’s used. And through this process, we can connect fairness to all other socio-political concepts like freedom, equality, justice, tyranny, and “choice.” A person who thinks market processes are a guarantee of equality will have no problem saying that market prices are fair. A person who sees equality as an equal ability to live and express one’s values will see market prices as ridiculously unfair.
The intuition of fairness has existed for millennia before the advent of capitalist markets, and there’s no particular reason to believe that markets are necessary for it to be expressed.
If we move further away from resources and into social power, the principle remains roughly the same. Is affirmative action fair? Are women’s rights fair? They are certainly not fair1, but there’s no particular reason why we should care about that. If we translate social power into a tangible resource like money, then I think we get a general correspondence with issues like labor price and taxation.
The general consequence of considering only the most narrow kind of fairness (the absence of physical coercion or threat) is that only policies which extend the status quo are “fair.” The enormous amount of coercion deployed to protect property rights and State interests is omitted because this protection does not count as coercion in our societies.
Because fairness is a basic human intuition which permates ethics, all political views must have some conception of how fairness should be expressed in society.
Based on his conceptual analysis, George Lakoff defined two basic political models: the strict parent model and the nurturing parent model, associating them with conservatives and liberals respectively. To this I would add a third model, the anti-parent model, as exemplified by Anarchism in general, democratic schools, worker self-management, federated communities, and so on (I have an entry coming at a later date detailing this alternative moral framework).
Now compare this with a poll made by intuitionist Jonathan Haidt comparing fairness as proportionality (“you should get what you deserve”), fairness as opportunities (“everyone should have an equal chance to succeed”) and fairness as equality (“ideally everyone should have the same amount of money”). He found that the first was held mostly by conservatives, the second was held mostly by liberals, and the third was held by neither. Actually, I think the third is probably mostly held by people who hold to the anti-parent model.
“You should get what you deserve,” in practice, often ends up being “you got what you deserved.” “Everyone should have an equal chance to succeed,” in practice, often ends up being “you had an equal chance to succeed, you loser.” In short, these conceptions often end up used as reasons to beat up on those less fortunate… and that’s pretty unfair, if you ask me.
I would not exactly qualify myself as believing that everyone should have the same amount of money, or that money is the primary criterion by which we should evaluate the goodness of a life, although it’s obviously of great importance in a capitalist system. True, money is an important form of power, but an unfree society is bad for everyone (except the power elite) regardless of how much money you have.
I’ve commented many times before that negative rights, rights for something to be protected, are useless unless they are accompanied by positive rights, rights to access resources. The right to stay alive is useless without the right to access health care, for example. This concept of access, I think, provides us with an entryway into “fairness.”
I would like to define three principles of fairness, in order of depth, which I think encapsulate my anti-parent model concept of fairness very well:
1. Basic rights fairness: That all should have viable access to the resources necessary for their life as modern citizens (food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, transportation, electricity, sanitation, etc). This would require a major overhaul of the capitalist system, but is not inherently contradictory to it.
2. Power fairness: That there should be no hierarchies unless they can be justified by a greater good (the Chomsky Principle). This would require a major overhaul of all institutions, and it’s unrealistic to think that any existing power structure would voluntarily do this.
3. Generational fairness: That we should be fair to future generations as well, by not destroying the environment they are going to live in. This would basically require a miracle at this point.