Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Estlund on Non-Fairness

I've long thought that fairness is overrated, and often brought up in situations where it is completely unnecessary (e.g. the suggestion that one must flip a coin to decide which of two needy strangers to help). Rather, as Estlund argues, it is at most "an occasional value":
It can sometimes seem as if everything should be fair. The hegemony of fairness is partly owed to an unfortunate linguistic habit, in which anything that is not fair, but could have been fair, is called unfair. Since unfairness is, as the language works, so obviously a moral failing, it would follow that everything ought to be fair if it can be. But there seems to be a legitimate questions about this, which we should not let linguisitic habits settle. For example, to defend my choice to save my son from drowning rather than saving the stranger next to him, it is not obvious that I should need to show that doing so conforms to some appropriate standard of fairness. Or consider my giving five dollars to one beggar and nothing to the next. Is it obvious that this is only permissible if it is, in some way, fair? It is obviously not fair, but is it unfair? (We might call this the non/un issue.)

-- D. Estlund, Democratic Authority, p.67.


  1. I agree with your point that fairness is overused (and possibly only useful in an instrumental sense) but I don't agree with his argument - just because there are situations where we would intuitively ignore it doesn't reveal anything about morality.

    Surely morality isn't supposed to be some great human project to self justify. Maybe he thinks it just isnt 'fair' to expect a person to give any consideration to your welfare if his son is in danger.

  2. "Is it obvious that this is only permissible if it is, in some way, fair?"

    I haven't read Estlund so perhaps I'm missing some context, but I can't imagine that anyone has ever claimed anything as strong as this. The most ardent supporters of fairness presumably believe it is a pro tanto reason, not a conclusive one. (is Rawls an exception? I'm not sure)

  3. Yeah, he goes on to address this by insisting that it also isn't obvious that the non-fairness counts against the option at all. (If anything, I'm inclined to think that it obviously doesn't. Much like inequality, really.)

  4. Tangential note: I perhaps agree with you here. My thought is that if fairness sides with saving the greater number and majoritarianism anyway, then whether it exists or not, it's not a threat to my views.

    As I understand it, people typically justify democracy on some fairness/equality basis, or otherwise for it's pragmatic benefits. You've written a few posts on this, but I can't think what your view is. The "what is democracy" post just talked as though democracy per se was valuable - this strikes me as fetishishtic, but I'd like to hear you say more.


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