A couple of my recent posts and comments have brought forth an invitation to discuss the concept of fairness. Are we being fair to wealthy people to ask that they make some contribution to closing the deficit?
Let me begin with a few basic claims about fairness.
(1) 'Fairness' is a moral concept. A moral person is fair. A person who is unfair is doing something that a moral person would not do.
(2) Since it is a moral concept, 'fairness' must relate to reasons for action that exist. There must be reasons for action that exist for creating a state in which people are fair, and reasons for action that exist for avoiding a state of unfairness. Reasons for action that do not exist have no relevance to the question of what is fair or unfair.
(3) Desires are the only reasons that exist.
I am not going to use this post to defend desirism - I have written quite a bit on that subject throughout this blog. Here, I will only seek to apply the principles of desirism to the concept of fairness. In short, this is the idea that moral evaluations ultimately aim at evaluating malleable desires as those that people generally have reason to promote through praise or inhibit through condemnation.
(4) Since 'fairness' relates states of affairs to reasons for action that exist, and desires are the only reasons for action that exist, we must assess 'fairness' by examining its relationship to desires.
(5) As a moral concept, we are relating 'fairness' to malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using social tools such as praise and reward, and seeking no relation to malleable desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit. Again, this is all defended in a general discussion of desirism.
(6) 'Fair' not only identifies a state as one that a person with good desires would seek to realize, but also serves as to praise for those who would act to realize that state. In this way, it acts to promote the desires responsible for creating such a state.
(7) 'Unfair' not only identifies a state as one that a person with good desires would seek to avoid realizing, but also serves to condemn those who would act to realize that state. In this way, it acts to inhibit the desires responsible for creating such a state.
So, ultimately, I get to the conclusion that to treat somebody fairly is to treat him as a person with good malleable desires (desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote) and lacking bad malleable desires (desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit) would treat that person.
What would a fair trial look like? It is a trial that a person with good desires, and lacking bad desires, would design.
Now, let's apply this to the case of dividing a cake among a group of six-year-olds who are all pretty much equal. The person with desires we have the most and strongest reason to promote would likely give each an equal share. But we also have reason to give people a desire to consider those who would benefit more from a slice of cake - and this who would not benefit much at all (because they already have 154,598 cakes to eat).
In comments I mentioned a case in which a boat sinks and one person ends up with 10 life jackets, one person has 1 life jacket, and 9 people have no life jackets. The concern for others that people generally have reason to promote would seek a state of redistributing the life jackets so that each person has at least one.
We use the terms 'unfair' and 'selfish' to condemn those individuals that would hoard life jackets and inhibit the desires that would lead to this behavior. Actually, our moral condemnation would be stronger than that. And if he were to take 8 life jackets and auction them off to the highest bidders, we would have utter contempt for such a person - for good reason.
We call the state of affairs in which each agent gets at least one life jacket 'fair' to promote desires that would motivate agents to realize this state.
Does fairness require an equal distribution of all assets?
No. After people have been raised up to a particular state where they have no particular need for a resource, it is unfair to take from somebody any surplus that the person may have acquired for themselves. We want to condemn this interest in taking more than what is needed because we do not want to destroy the incentive to create a (desire-fulfilling) surplus.
Yet, this does not imply that we have no reason to condemn the person who decides to do nothing when his well-being is secure and his small efforts will provide major benefits for others.
Similarly, even in a state in which there just is not enough to go around, we have reason to promote an aversion to taking so much from another that we take away their means of obtaining some basic level of food, shelter, and health.
I would like to contrast this to the libertarian concept of fairness. This concept is built upon a myth that intrinsic values exist and that it is unfair to take property from others when that act violates these imaginary intrinsic moral properties.
Libertarianism shares the idea that "fair" is what there are reasons for action to bring about, and "unfair" is what there are reasons for action to avoid. Its problem rests with the make-believe reasons for action that it relies on in determining what states to bring about or avoid.
Desires exist. We see them operating around us constantly, providing a whole host of reasons for intentional action that both explain and allow us to predict a great many every-day events - the behavior of intentional agents.
But the libertarian conclusions about fairness are false, because the libertarian reasons for action are not limited to reasons for action that exist.
Do you want to prove that the wealthy are being treated unfairly? Then prove that a person with good desires will not prefer that the money that pays for government services come from the rich. And prove that those desires are good, not because they are in agreement with some imaginary supernatural oughts, but because they are desires that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote using tools like praise and condemnation. Prove that people generally have many and strong desire-based reasons to condemn the motivation behind such an act. Then, you have proved that taxing the rich is unfair.
Tomorrow, I will look specifically at the issue of taxing the rich and answer the question of how much I would have taken, and for what.