I believe in Unfair

June 20th, 2010 | by nick |

Recently I heard Jonathan Dimbleby attempt to ridicule an Any Questions panellist, who was espousing his belief in fairness, by asking “Does anyone believe in unfair?” Despite the laughter and applause this generated, I’d like to rise to the bait, and say yes, I do.

I don’t, of course, mean that I enjoy unfairness. Or think that it is a suitable primary driver of any political philosophy. But – like that wonderful line in the film “The Usual Suspects”, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” – unfairness exists, is real, and needs to be believed in, in order that we can address it appropriately.

Moreover, we can’t eradicate it. Eradication of unfairness would involve everyone thinking that life was fair. In a world as complex as ours, this simply will never happen. This is an evolutionary race – people’s expectations and needs will evolve, and we will need to act upon the world that arises in order to treat the most exigent cases of unfairness. The level of action and treatment is very definitely a political issue; and in this piece I am not intending to belittle the reality of that debate. But there is a very real difference, in rhetoric and approach, between an achievable aspiration and an unattainable utopia.

Incidentally, there is a parallel in the search for the eradication of poverty; another instance of “motherhood and apple pie” corrupting intelligent thought. Absolute poverty can be eradicated – it might be difficult, but it is at least logically coherent to aspire to achieve that. Eradication of relative poverty is not about poverty at all, it is about inequality, as the threshold is determined by the poverty of others. The only ways to eradicate relative poverty is to subjugate everyone to a common level, or – the trick of communist despots through the years – fiddle the figures. But it is a brave politician that says so.

So it is with “fairness”. Fairness of opportunity is similar to seeking to remove absolute poverty. It is a tall order, maybe an impossible one. But it is infinitely more sensible than seeking fairness of outcome. How can fairness of outcome deal with the differences between individuals in their willingness to seize opportunities? If someone is disabled, we correctly recognise that they need assistance relating to that disability. If someone is disadvantaged, we provide services to assist them overcoming those disadvantages. But there must be a limit to this. Are we to consider that a lack of ambition is a disadvantage? Or even a disability? What about laziness? There are of course a plethora of absurd and trite examples – I would quite like to play cricket for England; and it’s “just not fair” that I can’t. These all sound rather childish.

But there is a much bigger issue, that stems from individual freedom and responsibility. I’d prefer to receive fairness of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. Because only the former can coexist with self-determination. Surely I must have the right to refuse an opportunity?

Is this a semantic argument? Yes, but it still matters. The reason is that the language frames the expectations of people. As Camus put it: “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

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