top of page

FAIRNESS: Its Role in Our Lives / Vol. 73, No. 2 (Summer 2006)

Arien Mack, Editor

Fairness is a central motivating force in our private and public lives. It is deeply enmeshed with questions about who gets what and how it is distributed, with how we feel about the ways in which power, resources, access, even attention are divided. The papers in this issue were first presented at the fourteenth conference in the Social Research series, which took place on April 14-15, 2006 at the New School.


It falls to me, in introducing the first section of this issue, to make the obvious -but all important- point that the word “fair” has a double meaning. On the one hand, we say a situation is fair when we can see that it is well-balanced in an objective sense -when, for example, things are distributed evenly, symmetrically, or in a stable configuration.

The article considers the topic of fairness in relation to the influence of cooperation. It is said that in a social system built on individual strength, the strong have an advantage. However, the picture changes as soon as the system introduces additional factors relevant for survival. The animal kingdom is considered one situation where widespread cooperation can be observed. According to Thomas Hobbes, every man is presumed to seek what is good for himself naturally, and what is just, only for peace's sake, and accidentally.

The article considers the terms fairness and norms. It is said that fairness is being used in two main ways. The first pertains to the idea of a fair division of something. The term might refer either to the outcome of a division or to the act of dividing itself. In everyday interactions, there is a plethora of norms that suggest unequal rather than equal division. There is also the idea of a fair response to the behavior of other people. In another case, fairness is related to two-person interactions. Three fairness behaviors identified include the rejection of unfair division, conditional cooperation, and reciprocity.

The fundamental challenges of social living faced by our distant ancestors are in many respects not fundamentally different from those we face today. Modern states and global markets have provided conditions for mutually beneficial cooperation among strangers on a massive scale. But altruistic cooperation remains an essential requirement of economic and social life. The reason is that neither private contract nor government fiat provide an adequate basis for the governance of modern societies. Social interactions in modern economies are typically uasi-contractual; where the invisible hand fails, the handshake may succeed.

The article discusses research conducted by experimental economists that examined alternatives to pure self-interest. The assumption that self-interest is the main human motive in most economic contexts should be maintained by economists, and other social scientists should recognize how strong a motive self-interest is in social interactions. It is said that the rise of experimental economics has been a tremendous boon to identifying the nature and scope of social preference, and the productivity of experimental economic research in the said domain is accelerating.


The article discusses the author's insights on a tax system that embraces fairness and equality. During the Civil War, US President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 because he believed that it is imperative that the Union pay for the Civil War and not pass the burden to future generations. According to the author, the nation's tax code should honor every kind of work. He claimed that shifting the tax from wealth onto work betray the country's deepest commitments. Referred to such is the Republican's agenda to drive up tax rates on wages.


We as a society have normalized, and for the time being, largely depoliticized, a remarkable set of social conditions. These conditions have been characterized by some as the emergence of a “prison industrial complex” by others as a new “carceral state” and yet by others as a trend of becoming a “mass imprisonment society.”

The article discusses reasons for African Americans to decline from protesting or even recognize discriminatory treatment by skin color, even when they are deeply sensitive to discrimination by race. In a parallel issue, it is found that poor Americans tend not to protest economic inequalities even when they recognize them to be excessive or even unfair. It is presumed that race matters. African Americans are expected to have the same perceptions of discrimination and understandings of unfairness. Survey revealed that skin tone within a given race or ethnicity is associated with socioeconomic outcomes.

The article focuses on the concept of fairness in a democratic regime. Considering that there may be more general fairness criteria applicable to any political system, it is said that fairness in relation to political decision is especially central in a democracy. It is argued that political equality as a criterion for a fair democratic political system is more crucial than is equality of income or wealth for a fair economy or equality of respect for a fair cultural or social system. Examples for the concept of fairness in democracy is taken from the political sector of the US.

The article aims to determine the fairness of affirmative action in relation to a speech given by US President Lyndon Johnson on race, fairness and affirmative action, given at Howard University's June 1965 commencement. The president observed that transcending equal treatment is needed even after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his campaign on behalf of a Voting Rights Act. The gap between African Americans and Whites grew after the end of the Second World War. It is said that the controversy over affirmative action noted by Randall Kennedy in mid-1980s, constitutes the most salient current battlefront in the ongoing struggle over the status of the African Americans in American society.


The papers included in this section are quite diverse, ranging from Cass Sunstein’s analysis of the conflicting conceptions of procedural fairness to Edna Ullmann-Margalit’s analysis of family fairness. But there are common themes running through these discussions. All stand in the shadow of John Rawl’s powerful and dominant understanding of justice as fairness, since fairness involves much more than justice.

The article discusses the author's insights on the notion of family fairness and contrasts it with justice. Susan Okin's notion of a just family is considered and the notion of a not-unjust fair family is developed. The author proposed that family fairness is partial and sympathetic rather than impartial and empathic, and that it is particular and internal rather than universalizable. It is claimed that the ongoing comparison of preferences among family members is the basis of family fairness. A good family is characterized as a not-unjust family that is considerate and fair.

The article presents the author's insights about fairness and philosophy. The author claimed that his most important contribution are his suggestions about why fairness matters, what conceptions of fairness animate everyday life and how amenable they are to philosophical tidying up and political implementation. John Rawls produced the theory of justice as fairness, which means a theory of justice that describe the social institutions that would be created as a result of a hypothetical contract made under conditions that ensure that all contractors treat one another fairly.

The article discusses the political psychology of redistribution. An anecdote relevant to thinking about the relations between the sense of unfairness and injustice in low-enforcement tax regimes is presented. It is said that the operation of low-enforcement regime is most likely to illuminate people's underlying conceptions of fairness and unfairness. The history of tithing is one source of illumination about low-enforcement regimes. Anecdotal evidence show that attempts to increase tithe significantly above a tenth breed resentment and resistance. An examination of the pattern of charitable giving in the U.S. reveal that few give as much as tenth.

There are two conceptions of procedural fairness. The first places a high premium on general rules; the second emphasizes the value of individualized treatment. My goal here is to make some progress in understanding the choice between the two conceptions. The discussion proceeds in three parts. The first emphasizes that rules require legal institutions to do a great deal of work before actual applications arise; the individuated approach requires this work in settling controversies. The second part explores the reasons that both conceptions have such appeal, emphasizing a range of qualitatively diverse considerations that tend to lead people to favor one or the other. The third part explores the choice between the two y stressing the importance of three simple factors: the costs of legal decisions, the costs of legal error, and the costs of private planning.


In this essay, we try to take a step back from the political fray and examine some more fundamental considerations that seem relevant to assessing the fairness of current arrangements governing economic exchanges related to debt contracts and alternatives that have been (or might be) proposed to them. This article will characterize the concept of fairness, clarify what sovereign debt is, describe an ideal picture of creditor-debtor relations and describe how the reality differs from that picture.

The article addresses arguments about equality and choice in social services. Public services is defined as services that are not purchased directly by consumers from their own resources but financed primarily from taxation or from social insurance. In the developed world, the extension of the individual's right to choose public services such as education and healthcare is a major policy issue. In most countries, the right to exercise choice in areas such as public education and health care has historically been limited.

This paper discusses the research evidence on the psychosocial pathways which suggest how and why we are affected by inequality. How big income differences are in any society seems to serve as an indicator of the scale of social differentiation and social distances within it. The evidence shows that more hierarchical societies incur a wide range of social costs reflecting the corrosive effects of inequality. But why are we so sensitive to inequality? Epidemiological research on health inequalities and the social determinants of health has demonstrated that the quality of the social environment has powerful effects on health. This paper provides an account of how inequality gets under the skin to affect both health and wellbeing. Rather than making comparisons with some impractical state of complete equality, all the evidence presented shows the importance of the differences in inequality between different states of the USA or between different developed market democracies: it shows that even small increases in equality matter.


bottom of page