Building a workable definition of fairness

To build a fairer society, we need a definition of fairness that most people can get behind. But people have different ideas of what constitutes fairness, often grounded in their beliefs and values.

It is certainly true that political views colour how people think about fairness. In broad terms, those on the left think of fairness in terms of equality (everyone has enough resources to live comfortably). Those on the right see it in terms of rewards linked to individual responsibility and good character, with wealth trickling down from the wealth creators to everyone else. Both political traditions have some concept of proportionality (what you take out of the system is in line with what you put in). However, the reality is more complicated than a simple left-right divide, and many people have multi-faceted views about fairness that are rooted in their moral values and core beliefs.

We want to change the terms of the debate around fairness, but we recognise how difficult it is to change people's attitudes, given that they are so closely linked to their values and beliefs. Instead, our aim is to construct a vision of a fair society that builds on common ground. We want to promote narratives that can attract broad support by appealing to the values of most people, for example by emphasising tackling inequality while respecting the link between effort and reward.

To do this, we need to dissect the idea of fairness from a range of perspectives and with the aid of a broad set of disciplines. Any workable definition must tick a number of boxes:

  • It must take into account the key principles and lessons from each of these disciplines
  • It must have majority appeal, relating to the values and attitudes of different groups
  • It must be simple enough to understand but flexible enough to apply to most real-life case