Friday, September 11, 2009

Fair's fair

Whitesands-M Charlton, 2000

For some time I've been considering writing about the ideas that interest me; the kind of problems I spend hours pondering in my study. I've been putting it off, not because they're especially difficult, but for fear they'd be so dull that I'd lose my followers. Then Dylan said something that made me change my mind.

The other day my older boys were discussing an incident which had happened at school. They felt an injustice had been done to a friend and we got to talking about what was fair and what wasn't. Suddenly Dylan interrupted our chatter with, 'Being fair is easy; it's what you'd like to happen if you didn't know who you were.'

I was stunned. Not just because this is a pretty sophisticated idea for a four year old. But also because it is about the neatest summary of John Rawls' Theory of Justice that I've heard since I studied it at university. That the idea should be so intuitive to a toddler perhaps explains why it has been so influential, even though you may never have heard of John Rawls.

Rawls' believes that we are all self interested; no matter how hard we might try to be 'objective' we just can't do it - we are always influenced by our own experiences and perceptions - with the best will in the world we are all biased to some extent. How then, can we ever decide what is fair and what isn't?

He proposes that the best way is to put ourselves in a position where we have to decide the rules before we know exactly who we are. If that sounds strange, here's how it might work...

Imagine you are abducted by aliens. They bundle you into their space-ship and zoom off to a new planet. On the way, they explain (they are friendly aliens after all) that this new planet will be exactly like ours: it will have an economy, rich people, poor people, culture, the usual divisions - in every respect, just like the world you came from. And it's going to be your job to decide the rules of fairness - of justice - which govern this new planet. The great thing, they explain, is that whatever you decide, is what everybody will accept as normal, fair and reasonable.

What an opportunity! The aliens say you can chose any rule you want - indeed, they encourage you to maximise your personal advantage; after all they picked you out as someone special.

So, for example, if it were me they had abducted, I might chose a rule that says middle class men with balding hair should be treated as kings. Or that my sons should be given special privileges at school and work. For a few billion miles, as the spaceship heads through the galaxies, I might ponder all the riches I could have.

But as I near the destination the aliens explain there is a problem with their 'people transporter'. I have to chose the rules before I leave the spaceship, but they can't be certain exactly how or where I will arrive. I'll certainly get there in one piece, but I might arrive as a man or a woman, white or black, rich or poor, disabled or able bodied,a smoker or not... Given this technical hiccup they suggest, I might want to reconsider those rules that I've previously chosen?

Damn it! There goes my plans for a life of luxury. My problem is that I want to maximise my advantage, but I don't know who the heck I am going to be. Rawls calls this situation the veil of ignorance (am I getting boring here?). And in this situation, he says the rational thing for me to do, is to chose the rules that are the fairest for everyone. Only by being fair to everyone can I make sure that I won't be unfairly treated when I arrive. It's pretty clever when you think about it.

You might say that's an interesting story, but what relevance does it have to the real world? People aren't being abducted by aliens and you already know who you are.

Well, you don't need to be abducted to conceptualise a similar situation. What rules would you have chosen for South Africa in the Sixties if you didn't know what colour you would be when you arrived? What rules would you determine for European immigration if you didn't know your nationality? What rules for religious tolerance if you didn't know your faith? The same for private education, tax rates, subsidies to the arts or science...? It's an interesting, and sometimes sobering, filter to apply to many of our thoughts on what is fair and what isn't

To complete the story, its worth mentioning that Rawls carried out a series of controlled experiments, (in a more sophisticated version of the story I outlined above), asking people to decide what the rules of fairness should be. What did they chose?

There was a surprising level of agreement on four things:

- That there should be no 'free riders' - people who sit outside of the rules
- That there should be 'true' equality of opportunity - and that means some extra help for those worst off
- That positions and progress should be open to all, and awarded on merit - the merit point is key
- That the richest people should only be allowed to get richer, providing that by doing so they also benefit those less fortunate than themselves.

Some of these conclusions are more controversial than others; the point is, they were what was chosen by a wide range of people. It is interesting, I think, to apply them to our problems today - consider the last one in relation to third world poverty, for example.

I often ask myself if it is fair to do this or that, how to respond when there are competing demands on time or resources. The answers are seldom straight forward, and there are many other theories we might follow to reach a conclusion. But I think Rawls' approach is a good starting point, and one that we instinctively grasp. As Dylan succinctly said, 'It's what you'd like to happen if you didn't know who you were.'


  1. Lots of food for thought there and until you gave the alien abduction as an example I wasn't even sure I was going to be able to follow this philosophy fully. Yet little Dylan didn't need the analogy - you've got a genius living with you there

  2. Absolutely fascinating post!! I've never heard of John Rawls but I like his thinking!!

    How much better the world would be if the richest people were only allowed to get richer by also helping others less fortunate!!

    I agree with have a genius on your hands!!

    C x

  3. I agree with Rawls, to a point, that we are all self-interested. It rather reminds me of people saying, 'put yourself in my position' when trying to get you to see their side of an argument or discussion. You can try, but deep inside you are often telling yourself that you would never be in that position and it takes a great leap of imagination to even try and be in that person's position. Always you will have your own take on the argument, maybe your own experience of what the person is talking about which is bound to colour how you see things, and it's hard to be totally objective, to step away from yourself. Doubt that makes sense, but I know what I mean!!

  4. From the mouths of babes. . . Fascinating thoughts though, and I probably will lose sleep tonight now mulling this over. Certainly worthy of more than one reading. Is this one definition of carrying our own baggage?

  5. All - thank you all for comments; so not entirely boring then? Maybe I'll try another similar post soon.

    FF - not sure about the genius; a genius at getting round his dad perhaps.

    Carol - I agree. Peter Singer's book - One World - is an excellent look at the ethics of first world vs. third world. Very readable.

    PFG - you are making perfect sense. It is hard, arguably impossible, to step away. This is why Rawls puts us in a position where 'the best we can achieve for ourselves is the fairest position for all.'

    CH - I can mull things for hours, days, nights, weeks,... it's kind of a good reason to sleep for.

  6. Oddly, I came to your blog via French Fancy...your remark about company registrars interested me, then read this post and was delighted as I'm just rereading Rawls for the first time for copy had long gone, but my god daughter bequeathed me her student books - for this read dumped them here never to recover them - and I'm having a whale of a time rediscovering what the layers of time had obscured.
    Encourage Dylan!

  7. A fascinating post and I too had not heard of Rawls. I am intrigued that your four year old had this insight. I suspect good genes and good teaching!