When 'fairness' falls short of social justice

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
15 Oct 2010

The F word is everywhere. Politicians of all persuasions wheel out 'fairness' as a justification and a palliative for everything to which the electorate might possibly be expected to raise an objection.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has published a new report entitled 'How Fair is Britain?'. This reveals much that is indeed unfair in our culture, from the reduced life expectancy of the poorest to the growing wealth gap, via the fact that 80 per cent of children with special needs experience bullying at school.

None of this is 'fair', but more importantly, it is the result of profound inequalities which will not be addressed by vanilla-flavoured platitudes. All three main party leaders have promised to pursue fairness. But if you want to test a metal, ring its obverse: who is going to campaign on unfairness?

The word is so subjective and non-specific as to mean whatever a speaker chooses it to mean. This is why politicians prefer it to justice and equality. And because it is bland and far removed from those sterner concepts, too many people interpret fairness as simply getting what they want – or at worst, avoiding what they don't want. Thus taxes are unfair, cuts in child benefit are unfair, welfare scrounging is unfair and so is tax evasion. The logical connections are not made.

Most of us learn in childhood that you cannot always have what you want or do what you like. With growing maturity comes a sense of the responsibilities of common living. Mutuality dawns slowly on the essential solipsism of youth but eventually it starts to modify behaviour. Five slices of birthday cake not only makes you sick, it also means your little brother will not get a piece.

But the self-restraint and awareness of the needs of others which some parents work so hard to inculcate in their children, does not always seem to survive into adult life. One man's bonus may very well be another woman's job loss. My 'freedom' to drive as fast as I wish without being curbed by a speed camera may be the cause of your child's death.

Our heedless profligacy in consumption of energy and goods delivers famine, flood and pestilence to materially poorer societies. It seems that we are in danger of ceasing to understand that there is no automatic right to an ever-rising standard of living.

The American political philosopher, John Rawls, wrote that it it is the duty of a democratic government “to adjudicate where interests collide”. That means that one side of the adjudication will not get its entire wish list. It also means that politicians must acknowledge that collisions exist and need to decide which side of any consequent crunch has the greatest need of their support.

That support must be backed by investment where the need is greatest. It is 'fair' that commissions in the military can no longer be bought; it is 'fair' that entrance to the higher reaches of the civil service now depends upon ability rather than patronage.

But without the determination to address the inequalities – not only of education but of self-confidence, aspiration and opportunity, which keep so many disadvantaged young people from getting anywhere the starting line of the race for advancement, this perception of 'fairness' will not be enough. It will not produce Colonels from council estates or Permanent Secretaries from post-industrial northern dereliction.

The Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October 2010 will focus minds already exercised by the 'unfairness' of removing child benefit from households with a single higher rate tax payer whilst leaving it intact for those with two earners paying the standard rate. This is a cock-up. But while it may lead to some resentful economic retrenchment in reasonably well-off families, who will, with some justification, feel it to be 'unfair', it will not be a cause of crushed life opportunities nor will it impose intolerable burdens such as those born by the physically or mentally ill when the benefits and services upon which they depend for independent living are slashed.

If a society has no sense of its interdependence or need for reciprocity, it will not recognise that policies to reduce unequal outcomes are more important than spinning 'fairness'. RH Tawney's view of equality is useful here: “While ... natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation."

This has nothing to do with some Daily Mail inspired indignation about the pitfalls of uniformity or “levelling down”, but it has everything to do with a clear moral vision of the good - not the 'big' - society.

A divided and unequal society will never be 'fair' and no amount of “sharing the pain” or claiming that “we are all in this together” is going to alter that. Messrs Cameron and Osborne and the indignant element of the middle class could do well to reflect on that.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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