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It's Not Fair! But What Is Fairness?

Three different ideas of fairness: sameness, deservedness, and need.

Every parent has heard the howl: It’s not fair! And on the political level, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party make the same claim: It’s not fair. But what does it mean to be fair? What is fairness, after all?

Is it fair that all seniors, regardless of income, get senior discounts? Is it fair that a few spread out in first-class while others sit cramped in economy seats? Is it fair that additional money be spent on specially designed playground equipment for a few handicapped children?

Here are three different ideas about what we mean by fairness:

1. Sameness: There is the fairness where everything is equal. So everyone pays the same price for a theater ticket, whether a child, an adult or a senior citizen. No one has more than another. Everyone eats or no one does, for example. Logically, then, an infant and an adolescent will receive the same amount of food. It doesn’t matter that one needs more than the other. Fairness is finding the average and applying it across the board. This is fairness as equality of outcome.

2. Deservedness: In this notion of fairness you get what you deserve. If you work hard, you succeed and keep all that you earn. Fairness means keeping what you deserve and deserving nothing if it isn’t earned. The hardest working, most diligent, smartest, and most talented should have more because of their attributes; the lazy, indifferent, stupid, and inept deserve to have less. Fairness is a rational calculation. This is fairness as individual freedom.

3. Need: The third idea of fairness is that those who have more to give should give a greater percentage of what they have to help others who are unable to contribute much, if anything at all. Fairness here takes into account the facts that humans have obligations to one another and the more one has the more is demanded of that person to contribute to the common good. Fairness and responsibility are linked. Compassion plays a role in the calculation of fairness. This is fairness as social justice.

The complexities and differences in definitions of fairness are revealed every day in school systems. Should schools spend the same on every child, as implied by fairness #1? Or should the budget provide more money and resources for the brightest and most talented, as implied by fairness #2? Another option, one that increasingly dominates spending in education, is to allocate the greatest resources to children with the greatest needs (special education), as implied by fairness #3.

So where should public funds be spent? Should schools be concerned with average children, children with the greatest potential, or those with the greatest need? Arguments can be made for any one of the three approaches to education or for the distribution of any of society’s goods and services, each using the concept of fairness.

As with many critical ethical values, one approach can’t address all relevant concerns. While mix-and-match may drive some philosophers to distraction, it is the right mixture, the constant tinkering, that presents the best chance of arriving at better solutions.

Ideologues believe that only their notion of fairness is correct. And it is that intransigence—the assuredness of ideologues who won't admit the legitimacy of other definitions—that has so polarized politics today in America.

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