Utilitarian Theory: How to Understand Fairness
On this page we discuss the concepts of fairness, justice, morality, and ethics as they relate to Utilitarianism.
We all have a sense of what is fair and equitable, what is right and wrong, good and evil, etc… but these ethereal concept is not so easily proven. I mean, can you hold “a wrong” in your hand, show me “a fair”, or tell me what “an evil” sounds, tastes, feels, looks, smells like? You can present empirical data and facts, but some part of the concept is purely conceptual and not so easily shown.
The idea that Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are unalienable rights, the idea that capitalism is better than communism, the ideas of freedom of speech and separation of church and state, the idea of the ten commandments… none of these are purely empirical, they all require us to accept some degree of reason and philosophical argument alongside our facts, statistics, and pure information.
You can’t show someone “an inalienable right”, you can prove it with arguments that use fact.
We all pledge allegiance to related concepts on a daily basis, but it is a concept not an object.
We can’t hold the purpose of a law in our hands, but we are bound to it by implicit and explicit social contracts, and take for granted that we could face the gallows for breaking a rule we had perhaps have never heard of before or never even realized we agreed to follow.
We consider these things just… but what is justice?
This is to say, if we don’t fully reject all the above ideas in a nihilist fashion, then we must accept that they “are real” and “do matter” and that we can “judge the moral from the immoral, the ethical from the unethical, the legal from the illegal” and be “correct”.
With this in mind, here are some basic definitions for fairness, justice, morality, and ethics using a basic utilitarian theory. When we claim something is fair, just, moral, ethical, etc on our site… we are using the following definitions.
- Utilitarian Theory: Utilitarianism is an idea first put forth by Aristotle in his Ethics, it is the idea that “that which is the best for the greatest number of people is what is best”, or as Mill puts it “that which brings the happiness to the greatest number of people is best”. Here happiness of mind and soul trumps happiness of the flesh, why pure animal passion should not rule this rule and reason should. Later theories point out that we have to be careful and consider caveats. For example, genocide can’t fit in with an enlightened utilitarian theory which seeks the greatest good as an ends, but isn’t so one dimensional that they would use it as an excuse to bring great suffering to the minority.
- Morality: Following the natural law in a way that generally would be considered ethical, just, fair, and compassionate. Religions touch upon morality, but religion is not morality itself.
- Ethics: Following wisely established law and custom in a way that is informed by morality. Ethics generally describes real-world “good behavior”.
- Fairness: Fairness can be thought of as a modern catch-all word that implies that something is moral, just, ethical, and utilitarian. It doesn’t mean it is perfect, it means that it is enough toward being ethical, just, and moral that it is “equitable” and “fair”.
- Justice: An outcome that is fair, ethical, and moral in which reason and the commonly accepted law (natural and civil) was applied wisely.
In other words, none of the above terms alone truly tell the story of “what is good” or “what is arete” or “what is virtue and vice“, but when considered together, along with our empirical evidence gleaned from our senses and reason, they have meaning.
Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36. John Stewart Mill’s take on Utilitarianism isn’t the end-all-be-all… but it is one of the more well-stated sociopolitical theories and a good starting point.
TIP: On our site we claim “an estate tax is fair” and “a progressive tax is more fair than a flat tax“. Here we are saying, “these things are generally for the greater good” and are just, moral, and ethical. No, I don’t have a fair-o-meter that I can put under my arguments bum for a few minutes to get a specific reading, instead all statistics aside, we must fall back at least partially on partially philosophical concepts like ethics, morality, justice, law, right, wrong, good, and happiness.
PHILOSOPHY – Political: Original Position [HD]. John Rawls presents what is perhaps the best thought experiment in modern political science regarding justice. In simple terms, if you had to be born in any nation today, but you couldn’t pick who you would be, what nation would you pick? Or what state? What time period? The idea is to take yourself out of your own shoes and think about the “greatest good” using statistics, from another angle… Watch the video it explains the veil of ignorance and original position more clearly.