What Does it Mean to Be Fair?

Plato’s Republic, utilitarianism, the philosophies of morality, ethics, politics, virtue, and law are all centered around one question “what is justice?” (AKA “what is fairness?”).

What is Justice?

Thus, to properly define what fairness is, is to define justice, is to define the root of moral, legal, and political philosophy. And this, according to many a philosophers, is in many respect the key to life and enlightenment (save a few concepts that get us to that point like “reason” and “a love of wisdom and truth“).

Thus, fairness is justice, is the key to the door that leads to the path of enlightenment, is the ends of logic and reason, is the arete of the forms.

But, “What is Fairness?” “What is Justice?” What is this thing we can know but can’t hold in our hand? Can we define it correctly if we can’t touch it directly?

The answer is yes, even though we can’t hold it in our hands, we can see shadows of it in the real world and sense those aspects empirically (we can see shadows of the true forms dancing on cave walls, so to speak, as Plato inferred).

In simple terms, justice/fairness is that which is balanced. Whether we are talking about a state, our soul, a relationship, a class system, or a court case, it is the seeking of temperance, moderation, and balance (the highest virtues) in an effort to balance the other virtues (like liberty, equality, honor, etc).

What Is Justice?: Crash Course Philosophy #40.

What Justice Isn’t

Justice is not vengeance, the stronger taking what they can, that which works at the time, or a given law of a given country; these are all attempts at justice (attempts at balance) but they are not justice themselves.

Justice is not an attempt at balance, it is balance in its perfect form. Sometimes boiled down to a first principle called “the greatest happiness theory” (AKA utilitarianism) which says, in overly simple terms minus the books of qualifiers, “justice is that which makes the most people the most happy and causes the least pain.”

Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36. This video and the others right around it in the series will give you a starting point. Best explanation is in Mill’s book though (sorry Plato, Kant, Bentham and others).

More on Justice and Fairness

Sure, the above sounds heady, but I mean think about this “if you break a law, you go to court, and you could end up in jail or forced to pay large amount of wealth as a fee”… That may seem normal to you, but question it for a second. Every concept I just listed is nearly purely metaphysical, a law, a court, jailed and fined for breaking a rule? Yet this is all fully accepted by society to the point that it speaks to our very Constitution (our most cherished document of our Civil Religion).

Not only are we already bound by explicit and implicit social contracts, we inherently accept the bounds and adhere to punishment under these guidelines without question.

When has a criminal ever said, “but I don’t accept your law, show me in nature where it says I can’t drink this plant or smoke that one?”

Following just laws might seem absurd by some measures, but following unjust laws should feel even more absurd. However, rarely do just laws feel absurd, because there is an inherent universal truth behind the concept of fairness and justice.

If you take a person’s life and wallet with no other motive, you expect punishment, because what you have done is unjust. You have caused more pain than happiness, you didn’t seek balance with your action, you took a life and money that wasn’t yours, and in return offered nothing.

If however you take a person’s life and wallet because they were actively trying to harm your life and had already caused you a monetary loss, then you would expect to be able to defend this in a court of law and prove that your actions were just. In the case of self defense, but where the actions are otherwise exactly the same, it is justice not to be punished.

In both cases it speaks to the nature of justice and fairness being at their core summed up by the term “balance”.

Thus, given this, we can make claims that “are true” that use terms like “fair”.

For example, I can reasonably say, “it is fair if a person kills a person in self defense if and only if that person was actively trying to take their life” (I can say “the non-aggression principle” “is just” or “is fair”). I can find empirical grounds for this argument, like Locke did, even though justice is a concept which does not exist as a physical entity here on earth and I can not bring justice to court with me in a bag and show it to a jury of my peers in my defense.

Justice and fairness cast shadows on the cave wall (speaking metaphorically), and they intersect with reality at points and can be seen empirically in this way, but they aren’t physical tangible things that we can hold in our hands and say “look, its a justice”.

Yet, to may of us, these concepts are the most important things. So how do we have a most important thing that we can hardly define or even really see?

Great question actually. It is the question that most works of metaphysics seeks to answer.

And really, this odd truism of life should be absurd. However, the fact that it, rather than being absurd, is essentially a workable key to life, is infinitely interesting and useful despite the ambiguous nature of it all.

This is to say, it is both absurd and rather useful and empirically proven. It is, as it perhaps should be, many things at once existing in a somewhat ironic balance.

All the above said, while Justice is a grand term, Fairness, its less grand cousin, is much more practical in our modern language.

We all inherently understand fairness as a concept, but often confuse justice as being “an adherence to a nation’s laws”.

Consider the tautological phrase “justice is that which is just” is less meaningful than the equally tautological “fairness is that which is fair” in modern English. Both mean “that which is morally right, fair, equitable, and balanced”, but fairness invokes a sort of balance unrelated to the laws of a nation… and indeed it is justice and fairness upon which laws are created, not the other way around, and laws only speak to fairness and justice in these respects (some laws are then, actually unjust and provably “wrong” in general; although specifics differ by nation and culture).

Sometimes we need to debate “what is fair”, but understanding that it analogous to asking “what is justice” will help.

Justice isn’t a law, it is the true spirit of fair laws, fairness isn’t what is fair for me, it is what is most fair for the most, what is most fair for the most is an absolute only principle, it is only the first principle from which other principles follow. By consider the principles in the correct way, we can reasonably determine if something is fair or justice and we can seek to balance the scales.

If we don’t seek to balance the scales, then nature will seek to balance the scales herself… and such things do not always result in smooth sailing.

When I say “a progressive income tax is more fair, more just, than a flat income tax” I mean, “it creates less pain and more happiness in a greater number of citizens on arrogate, it is more balanced all things considered”… and this is why it is “more fair and more just”, labels that have meaning but have no physical tangible form.

This is a concept of metaphysics that is distinctly different from faith. I can have faith that my ancestors are watching out for me, that is ontological, theological, or even cosmological, a type of purely spiritual mix of emotion and certainty. But that is not a thing from the same realm as universal forms like justice and fairness, these are as good and real as a block of wood (if not more real), even though they never exist in their own form in the every day, just as shadows of that form… dancing across the cave wall.

If this wasn’t so, what is the point of the social contract, constitutions, lawyers, and law degrees? If this wasn’t true, what is the point of the social sciences and social philosophies? If this wasn’t true, what would be the point of having debates about government. Pattens, contracts in business deals, promotions for a job well done over time, etc?

PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Plato [HD].


"What is Fairness? / What is Justice?" is tagged with: Equality, Ethics, Happiness, Metaphysics, Morality

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