Tuesday, 16 July 2013

What is 'fair'

Is it possible to have one set of principles that sets out what is ‘fair’ in a society which is full of individuals with different beliefs in what the word means?
A little pre-amble on the words we use….
Fairness seems an easier word to use than ’justice’. People will declare they have been treated fairly or unfairly and it is not really something that can be upgraded to a justice issue. There’s also a danger of saying an issue, which is really a personal preference, is a ‘justice issue’. It can diminish something that really is a justice issue, such as false imprisonment.  The use of the word ‘justice’ means it is more important, more life changing and likely to rally folk to the cause. It is a word to be used only in certain contexts and avoided in others, particularly if you want to down grade an issue that really is a justice one and convince people it is just about fairness. It is as if the heads will turn if someone is being treated unjustly but if it’s only unfair they can sort it out for themselves. It may be that justice is something where mutual agreement is more likely as it is easier to define, and therefore simpler for folk to rally together to make a difference.

Individuals want to be treated fairly but it is more complex, it is also about how other people are treated that needs to be seen as fair to the rest of us.
The word ‘fairness’ has come up recently in the context of changes to the Welfare State. It has been stated that changes are needed because we want to live in a ‘fair’ society and this is highlighted specifically where people who don’t work all day shouldn’t have a better standard of living than those who do work all day. It is deemed unfair and needs to be ‘fixed’ back to what some people consider as ‘fair’.
The deserving and undeserving poor used to be the wording for those who required assistance by the state. So depending on whether you were considered by the authorities to be deserving or undeserving you would be sent to the workhouse, alms house or prison. We don’t use those phrases now, we use fair and unfair. I think because we don’t want to use the word ‘poor’! If we accept people are poor we might feel an obligation or even, dare I say, compassion to help them, characteristics on which the welfare state was created….so we avoid the word poor and certainly not justice….
Today it goes something like this: - it is fair for the state to look after the disabled, the elderly (in the past the alms houses would look after them), or those out of work for short periods because their employer ran into difficulties because of the economic climate(off to the work house for them) and it is unfair on us hardworking tax payers for the state to look after anybody else and we consider them lazy or guilty of taking the system for a ride (prison for them). In reality that covers everyone else on state benefits - the long term unemployed because they live in a region where employment opportunities are non-existent, or were made redundant and now find it impossible to get a job due to their age, single parents, people with mental health issues, people who are unemployable due to being failed by parents, education and the system generally. So the argument/propaganda shouts-  it is unfair to the rest of ‘us’ for ‘them’ to sit about all day, doing nothing and having their rent paid and an income that they can ‘comfortably’ live on. They have cars, iPhones and Sky TV, they’re in the pub and have holidays, spare bedrooms and spare income. It is their choice to live on benefits and they should get a job or move to smaller properties.
It is impossible to prove this is true for the vast majority of people who are on benefits. The benefits people receive are set out to be minimal, they are carefully calculated to give people a very low standard of living, somewhere slightly above the bread line. The reality for most; it is not their choice to be on benefits, there are no jobs available for them and there are no smaller houses for them to move into. The reality is for the majority of people on benefits life has been extremely difficult, traumatic or opportunities were never available to them. Jobs have been lost, unexpected pregnancies happen, sickness leads to long-term inability to return to the career path, divorce….life happens and when people are in poverty it is highly unlikely it is their choice to be there. What is unfair is for society to not look after people who are poor, especially when the reason they are poor is because they have been failed by that society in the first place! What is fair is to help those who are worse off than us.
My thought is this, perhaps if we used language such as; ‘poor’, ‘living in poverty’ and ‘oppression of the poor’ which is a justice issue, we may find there is compassion enough for us to stop blaming people for a broken system and find ways to actually help them.


  1. I guess the wealthy use the word 'fair' in context of guilt and the poor use the word 'justice in the context of revenge...maybe

  2. Hello Mags and Phil, greetings from the land down under... I remember popping in to your site last year & seeing your smiling faces. cheers G