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?” We must also ask “what is fairness?”

What is Justice? The Philosophical Answer (and Therefore the Truest Answer) and the More Practical Answer

Justice is the mixing of wisdom (intellect and experience) and temperance (moderation) to strive toward the ideals of balance and moderation (toward true justice).

To do this takes courage.

Meanwhile, if something is just, it is by its nature also “fair”.

There are many forms of justice, with the lowest forms being physical, the next being logical, the next being ethical, and the highest being moral (roughly speaking; see types of laws and categories of understanding) and then with each category there also is ranks.

True justice is a justice that is of the highest form (but considers the lower forms).

True fairness is meanwhile simply a result of true justice.

Or, in general terms, justice is fairness.

Or, in complex terms, true justice is the highest form of justice (the one that encapsulates all; the arete of justice), and temperance, balance, moderation, fairness, and other such terms are part of the same fabric.[1]

Thus, it stands to reason, that which is unfair is that which is unjust, injustice is a lack of balance. Actions taken without wisdom or temperance, or good intentions taken without courage, can be sure to result in injustice.

With that said, we aren’t perfect beings, and we can’t hold the perfect arete of a form in our hands, so justice is always an elusive goal, not a destination to reach.

If we strive toward justice, the ends will be happiness, thus justice and happiness are about as close as we get to virtues related to first principles like utilitarianism.

As a practical matter this can be translated to the courage to follow and enforce laws that foster and ensure the aforementioned philosophical qualities.

“The conception of justice as the union of temperance, wisdom, courage” – Introduction to Plato’s Laws

“For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage. All these naturally take precedence of the other goods…”) – Quote from Laws the first one was referring to.

What is Justice: Plato’s Laws and Republic

“What is justice” is the main question Plato’s Republic asks, and it is the question all philosophers worth their salt have asked since.

Likewise, the main point of Plato’s Laws is to define Justice (where true justice is the highest virtue for the soul and state).

To extrapolate the ideas put down by Plato and to apply them here we can say that to define fairness is to define justice, and to define these terms are to define the root of moral, legal, and political philosophy.

And this, according to many 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 highest of Plato’s 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).

Justice and fairness are 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 and moderation to balance other virtues like liberty, equality, honor, etc.

‘O Athenian—inhabitant of Attica, I will not say, for you seem to me worthy to be named after the Goddess Athene because you go back to first principles…’ – Plato’s Laws

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 and 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 (minus the books of qualifiers) “justice is that which makes the most people happiest 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. The best explanation is in Mill’s book though (sorry Plato, Kant, Bentham, and others).

More on Justice and Fairness

Let us think about this line of reasoning, “if you break the law, you go to court, and you could end up in jail or forced to pay a large amount of wealth as a penalty.” That may seem normal to you, but question it for a second. Every concept we listed is metaphysical: law, a court, jailed and fined for breaking a rule? These are all accepted by society to such a degree that they speak to our very Constitution, the 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 that we associate with law.

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. You would probably use the argument of self-defense. The actions that come as a result are 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, it’s a justice.”

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

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

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

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.

Justice is an impressive 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 “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.” However, 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. Laws only speak to fairness and justice in these respects. Some laws are unjust and “wrong” in general; although specifics differ by nation and culture.

Sometimes we need to debate “what is fair;” understanding that it analogous to the question “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 fairer for the most. What is fairest for the most people is an absolute principle. It is only the first principle from which other principles follow. By considering the principles in the correct way, we can determine if something is fair or just 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 that “it creates less pain and more happiness in a greater number of citizens. It is more balanced. all things considered,” This is why it is “fairer and more just.” Labels may have a meaning without having 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 purely spiritual mix of emotion and certainty. But that is not a thing from the same realm as universal forms of justice and fairness. These concepts are as good and real as a block of wood (if not more real), even though they never exist in their own form, 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 studying 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?

PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Plato [HD].


  1. Plato’s Laws

"What is Fairness? / What is Justice?" is tagged with: Equality, Essentialism and Existentialism, Ethics, Happiness, Metaphysics, Morality, Philosophy of Law, Virtue Theory

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