Controversies over fairness and equality animate all human society; they may be accepted as universal imperatives, but there is rarely societal agreement on how and to what degree to implement them. We may all be equal before our God, and every parent, referee, judge or teacher will be only too familiar with the need not to act unfairly. But that is where agreement stops.
How far should societies attempt equality and, if so, of what? As importantly, is there any widespread agreement on what fair play, fair pay, fair process, fair treatment and a fair chance mean?
Lacking such agreement, British society has become palpably less equal and more unfair – whether spatially or in terms of access to wealth. We can and should do better: no good society can prosper without addressing and answering these questions, for which the precondition is the creation of a shared philosophy of fairness and clarity about where the principle of equality must hold.
The Fairness Foundation has been launched to help to attempt both, and The Fair Necessities sets out the starting point for what we expect will be a long journey.
But it is a journey with a fair wind at our back, and where there is every reason to hope that we will arrive at our destination. The government’s concern with levelling up is driven by a recognition that Britain’s economic and social geography is palpably unfair, and needs redress. Equally, the latest advances in behavioural psychology show just how hard-wired conceptions of just desert and proportionality are in the human psyche.
It should be no surprise that there is scarcely a society on earth that does not represent justice with a pair of scales: the tariff of punishment should be in proportion to the judged intensity of the offence. This principle of desert that is in due proportion to the degree of effort or degree of crime is universal. It is a foundational, cardinal building block in any conception of fairness. The tariff of due deserts across society should of course, as far as possible, run on parallel equal lines: but we cannot escape that there will be a ranking of reward, even if crucially it must be proportional to any contribution.
However, everyone knows another component of the human experience – the role of good and bad luck. Some luck is earned, following champion golfer Gary Player’s famous remark that the harder he practiced, the luckier he got. But some luck is undeserved – being born into a well-off family, say, or being born with a disability. A fair society must, as far as possible, try to design out the incidence of unearned bad luck before it ineradicably impacts on people’s lives.
These fairness principles – of proportional due desert to recognise effort and the need to design out unearned bad luck – ineluctably lead to five interdependent maxims (or ‘fair necessities’) for a fair society:
- Everyone should be rewarded in proportion to their effort and talents. Exceptional rewards are only fair if they correspond to a universally accepted exceptional performance or contribution.
- Everyone should have the same substantive opportunities to realise their potential. This requires us to take radical steps to remove the structural barriers that face people who are born into disadvantaged circumstances.
- Everyone contributes to society as far as they can and is supported by society when they need it. There is such a thing as society held together by reciprocity of regard – not an aggregation of individual interests.
- Everyone has their basic needs met so that no one lives in poverty. We need to agree as a society exactly where we draw this line.
- Everyone is treated equally in terms of due process, respect, social status, political influence and public services. There must be equality, for example, in a court, in a polling station, in access to redress a wrong, in the right to worship as individuals choose. Equality of process is a constitutional right of citizenship and underpins a fair society. At the same time, we must respect the principle of equity: some people need to be treated differently so as to have the same opportunities as everyone else (maxim two).
These maxims may seem unexceptional, but brought together they define a new paradigm of ‘balanced fairness’ that is a challenge to the embedded approach of left and right.
Thus maxims one and two are a rejection of socialist conceptions of equality and open the way to a reasonable, social market, stakeholder capitalism, while maxims three and four are a rejection of libertarianism and conservative advocacy of distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor, and call for an active state constructing a comprehensive social settlement based on universal entitlement.
However, equality enters the frame in maxim five as equality of process – no less foundational, and crucial if any capitalist society is to be deemed as fully democratic and legitimate.
Together they point to a very different state, capitalism, democracy and societal contract to the one we have now, even if there are some traces in social policies like universal child benefit and insistence on non-discrimination.
It is our view, backed by extensive surveys of public opinion, that these five maxims, if clearly articulated, could be shared by the overwhelming majority of people in Britain – especially if they are brought alive in terms of policy.
Obvious areas for action that embody all five maxims must be the way we treat our children, especially in the first years of life, designing away the vicissitudes of unearned bad luck from the accident of birth, and how everything – from housing to the world of work – should be organised to allow adults to know that their work and voice will be rewarded and recognised justly.
It was Aristotle who posited that humans achieve happiness when they have the chance successfully to use their talents to act on the world for the better, in however a small way.
The five Fair Necessities, uniting the insights of different traditions so as to provide a new lens through which to remake the world, offer an original way for us to rebuild our society – drawing the sting of unfair inequalities and opening the way for all of us to live lives that we have reason to value.
Join us on our journey!
Chair of the Editorial Board