It's Only Fair

Published in Axiology, Consensus on Feb 20, 2022

The world does not run on 'fair'. Whenever we define what is fair (or not fair) we merely find a new edge for injustice and inequality.

Instead we need to work to the principles that exist below fairness. Be that kindness, empathy, the sovereignty of others, or some agreed telos point.

This morning I had a row with my young son. Mel's insistance that I have the final pancake, leaving me in an n+1 situation (where n is the number of pancakes everyone else had eaten) left my boy indignant. It wasn't fair, he declared.

Fair though is a moveable feast. Should we have instead aportioned pancakes by mass? Age? Income earning potential? How about by who had invested the most in preparing the food, or who would be clearing up?

There was a definite sense from my boy that whatever definition of fair we came to would have to meet his internal measure - which was predicated on him receiving at least a sizable share of the remaining pancake. This was not an ideal situation to be building a consensus view on fairness for our family.

As parents we decided that maybe fairness was not the principle that should be driving the discussion. We searched for others. Unfortunately none comforted my son's sense of injustice.

Looking beyond pancakes, we need to be clear that when we create definitions of fair, right and wrong - that we are not merely using them as tools for reinforcing our own wants and positions. Fairness, when defined, should always be sum-positive for everyone; a win-win-win. We should also recognise that fairness always has consequences.

Alternatively we can take a Position of Principles & Values, rules of flight that allow us to inter-depend in constructive ways. By design, it must consider the networked-human position.

Notes for follow up:

  • There is a strong critique of this in legal philosopy, that justice and the law are always slightly out of sync with one another. We create laws to answer injustice (hopefully) but that this in turn creates or surfaces new injustices. I need to dig out my notes on this.
  • Social leadership looks to values, over rules. How we define and utilise these is a critical social technology.
  • The Institute of Cultural Affairs define consensus in relation to agreement. This is a definition I find myself referring to a lot in my practice and is something I should be writing about more.
  • The Future We Create might have a different position on the zero-sum/sum-positive position. I'll explore that in a later post.