13 October, 2014

May the Great British Fairness Debate continue

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by Brad Hooker is a British American philosopher who specialises in moral philosophy. He is a Professor at the University of Reading, best known for his work defending rule-consequentialism.

Fairness is a value that virtually everyone in Britain thinks is very important.

A survey recently conducted by the Fairtrade Foundation asked people from every part of Britain if they thought they behaved fairly at least most of the time. Strikingly, 99% answered yes.

Presumably, such a high percentage wouldn’t have been able to give this answer unless at least most of the time they were trying to be fair. And presumably they wouldn’t be trying to be fair so much of the time unless they thought fairness was very important.

The same survey revealed that a significant percentage of people in Britain admit to behaving unfairly at least once within the last month and an even greater percentage think they have been treated unfairly within that time frame too.

Apparently, although we think fairness is very important, we could be more consistent about doing what we think fairness requires.

Fairness has various elements. One is the equal and impartial application of rules. For example, people who apply the 'first come, first served' rule to others but not to themselves are unfair when they push to the front of the queue.

Another component concerns the distinctions that rules make. For example, a rule that prescribed that employees from one ethnic group get higher wages than employees from other ethnic groups would be unfair in its content, since distinguishing between employees on the basis of ethnic group is unfair. Fair rules exclusively make all the distinctions that fairness requires.

Identifying the distinctions that fairness forbids as discriminatory or arbitrary is easier than identifying the distinctions that fairness requires to make something fair. But two especially appealing candidates are the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving and the distinction between those who are needy and those have more than they need.

The producers who the Fairtrade Foundation tries to help are hardworking and productive and thus deserving. They typically are also extremely poor and needy. Very often, the situation these people find themselves in is manifestly unfair. These hardworking and productive people get less than a living wage, and/or are pressured to work in a dangerous environment, and/or are prohibited from collective bargaining. Meanwhile, a high percentage of those of us in the most developed countries are very comfortably off in comparison with producers in developing countries. Fairtrade’s campaigns offer us opportunities to help make the working life of producers in developing countries fairer, or at least less unfair. Though many people regularly avail themselves of these opportunities, most of us could do so more consistently. If we did, the net effects would be very positive.

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