Monday, January 30, 2012

Fairness sounds better than equality

Stanley Fish argues in the NYT that Obama is increasingly talking about fairness because it sounds better than equality.

President Obama’s choice to emphasize fairness rather than equality in the State of the Union address makes good political sense. Although equality is the central concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement, focused as it is on income disparities, Americans are at least ambivalent toward equality as a primary value. .. 


Fairness is a better mantra than equality, for it rests on a notion of formal equality — everyone should be treated alike — rather than a notion of substantive equality — everyone should have the same stuff. Fairness, rather than undermining the American virtues of self-realization and entrepreneurial advancement, establishes a framework within which these virtues can be exercised. Fairness doesn’t tamper with the rules or skew them in the direction of the unemployed or impoverished: it just insists that the rules be followed and that no one gets to go to the head of the line if it is not his turn.


I still have serious doubts about this, as I've said before. Fairness (and justice) are not just about procedural fairness, but about who deserves what. And the second part usually gets truncated in the liberal use of the word. You get the moral force of the word while not delivering the goods in full. Fairness is not about substantive equality but it is about substantive outcomes.


Think about a murderer who is freed by the court on a technicality, say the prosecutor filled in a form incorrectly or missed a deadline. It might be procedurally fair. Impartial rules were followed. But most people would feel queasy about calling it a fair outcome.

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