Fairness is a multi-faceted concept, which is why people who argue about whether something is fair can often end up talking past each other. On one level it is about procedural justice, or fair process - the notion of 'playing by the rules', that everyone is treated in the same way. On another it is about outcomes - are resources distributed in the correct way, and is this calculated according to equality of outcome (everyone gets the same), or need (those in greatest need get more), or efficiency (such as the utilitarian idea of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’), or opportunity. Does everyone have the same opportunity to succeed in life? Are talent, hard work and good intentions adequately and fairly rewarded?
These three concepts - equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal outcomes - are often in conflict. Equal treatment (with equal access to education, healthcare, jobs, justice and so on) is a prerequisite to a fair society, but is not sufficient unless everyone has the same starting point (and therefore has equal opportunities). Unequal outcomes that result from genuinely equal opportunities are fair, as long as they are proportional to contribution. However, unequal outcomes that result from factors outside people’s control are unfair, and should therefore be corrected for or prevented. A fourth important concept of equality that relates to fairness is that of relational equality (that we are able to relate to one another ‘as equals’ because there are no relationships of domination or inequalities in civic status).
Most philosophers argue for some proportionality of treatment, in respect of need, or merit, or both. Many have made the link between hard work and reward. For Aristotle, the 'golden mean' of justice is fairness, whereby people get exactly what they deserve - no more, no less. Karl Marx agreed that reward should be linked to effort (“to each according to his contribution”) in the first phase of post-capitalist society, although he asserted that this approach needed to be phased out in favour of “to each according to his need” as society became richer. Adam Smith focused on the rewards due to the working classes, proposing that “they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged”.
Smith is not alone in taking a more egalitarian position than his most popular quotes might suggest. John Locke argued that the individual ownership of goods and property is justified by the labour exerted to produce them, but only as long as enough is left in common for others (although his theory also used the introduction of money to justify huge wealth inequalities). Even Robert Nozick, who took the position that individuals have fundamental rights and owe nothing to anyone, conceded that those individuals need the protection of the state to enforce functioning free markets and fair processes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw freedom as a function of participation in society, suggesting that individuals can remain free by joining together through the social contract.
Equality of opportunity has occupied many philosophers. Immanuel Kant argued that it is difficult to judge people by outcomes because of the role of chance, so we must judge them by their intentions, and how those have translated into their efforts. Isaiah Berlin distinguished between 'positive liberty' (having the power and resources to choose one’s path and fulfil one’s potential) and 'negative liberty' (the absence of obstacles that block human action). John Rawls stated that all economically and socially privileged positions must be open to all people equally, and that economic and social inequalities can only be justified if they benefit the most disadvantaged in society.
A branch of philosophy has focused on luck egalitarianism – the idea that inequalities that reflect ‘brute luck’, over which people have no control, are unjust, and that society should act to correct or prevent those inequalities, while inequalities that arise from choices that make, such as how hard to work or whether to gamble, are just and should not be corrected or prevented. Ronald Dworkin outlined a theory of ‘equality of resources’, arguing that a fair economic distribution must be simultaneously ‘ambition-sensitive’ (respecting the consequences of people’s different decisions) and ‘endowment-insensitive’ (ensuring that some people do not have fewer resources than others through no fault of their own; although he was not arguing for equality of outcome). He also distinguished between ‘brute luck’ (something outside a person’s control) and ‘option luck’ (people choosing to expose themselves to particular risks or opportunities). Gerald Cohen proposed that equality should be conceived in broader terms than simply resources, including welfare and capabilities (a variation of which is the idea of ‘core capabilities’ that everyone needs, such as being well nourished and adequately clothed and sheltered, as well as enjoying freedom from excessive pain or discomfort). Most luck egalitarians believe that the natural talents with which a person is born are as much a matter of ‘brute luck’ as whether that person is born into wealth or poverty, and should therefore be corrected for.
Luck egalitarianism has been critiqued by Elizabeth Anderson on the grounds that society should not abandon those who make bad choices, and that it could lead to the demeaning treatment of those who suffer the bad luck of being ‘untalented’. She proposed the idea of ‘relational egalitarianism’, in which equality is about the nature of social relations between people more than it is about how resources are distributed, and that an equal society is one where no one has unjust power over anyone else. Many other thinkers have written about broader conceptions of justice (and fairness) in relation to certain groups. Iris Young has challenged the reduction of the concept of social justice to issues of distributive justice, arguing for a fuller understanding of justice and oppression as it relates to marginalised and excluded groups (such as women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBTQ+ people). However, Nancy Fraser has argued that social movements in recent decades have focused too much on the resulting idea of ‘justice of recognition’ (broadly speaking, identity politics) at the expense of wealth inequality (i.e. distributive justice). Charles Mills has written about the need to overcome the implicit ‘racial contract’ of Western societies when designing social contracts that are genuinely inclusive, while Carole Pateman has described the ‘sexual contract’ that underpins systemic sexism. Gideon Calder has argued that disabled people are subject to a ‘pincer movement’ of misrecognition and maldistribution when it comes to achieving justice.
Others have focused on what happens to those who do not make it to the top. Amartya Sen argues that we should strive for 'equality of capability’, in which "the ability and means to choose our life course should be spread as equally as possible across society", giving everyone an equal opportunity to develop up to his or her potential, rather than to maximise their wealth or status. Michael Sandel suggests that we must rethink our attitudes towards success and failure to be more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility, more affirming of the dignity of work and more hospitable to a politics of the common good.
Can we tie all of this together? Will Hutton argued in Them and Us that we can, starting with Marx's phrase "from each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution", including Greek notions of due desert, Locke's suggestion of earned rights, Rousseau's view of the role of government, and Rawls's suggestion that we need to compensate for accidents of birth. There is a role for society and the state in building and maintaining a level playing field and correcting for or preventing ‘unearned’ bad luck, to allow individuals to make the most of their talents; then it is down to individuals to do that, and to earn rewards in proportion to their efforts. But, as Michael Sandel suggests in The Tyranny of Merit, we must stop thinking that those who are successful are only there because of their talent and hard work, regardless of their personal circumstances and the role of luck, while those with less material success have somehow failed. We also need to ensure that everyone has a decent quality of life, including dignity and control as well as the meeting of basic human needs.
However, coming up with a coherent philosophical approach to fairness is not the same as persuading anyone to agree with it. It has been argued that people are inherently Kantian, judging what people deserve in relation to their intentions, while policymakers are utilitarians, thinking about the most efficient ways of delivering desirable outcomes. How can we understand people's attitudes, values and beliefs, and how these relate to competing conceptions of fairness?