Fair enough?

April 20, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

A comment on yesterday’s hubristically titled post focussed on the absence in my account of ‘how to save the world’ of any mention of social inequality. It is a valid criticism. But here are some things to bear in mind when we do talk about social justice.

When people are asked about what is unfair in society they are as likely to focus on what philosophers call procedural justice (playing by the rules) as distributional justice (social equality). As any political canvasser knows, if you ask people in disadvantaged areas about what is unfair they are more likely to refer to the neighbour who is working while on benefits or the immigrant family perceived to have got housing priority than to bankers, private education or the class system.

In his recent book on moral instincts, Jonathan Haidt suggests these two views of fairness (he calls procedural justice ‘proportionality’) are distinct impulses. While, as would be expected, the left tends to have the strongest story on distributional justice, conservatives often have a powerful message on the procedural dimension.

Sticking with Haidt, we need also to deal with the central idea of his book, which is that our moral judgements are more instinctive than reasoned. For example, he cites the example of Millian liberals who, having responded negatively to a story about a man buying a supermarket chicken, having sex with it then cooking and eating it, then scrabble around trying to find some harms-based rationale for their response. So while from moral and political philosophy we can derive ideas about what ought to offend us, this is not the same as changing what does offend us, the latter being based on long evolved aspects of our characters. It is like the distinction between what we know to be healthy foods and our continuing appetite for curry, beer and doughnuts.

In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I made the point that in progressive circles a lot of time is spent discussing the content of social justice but much less on the emotional foundations which underlie a desire to treat others justly. These debates are now getting more prominence with the growing popular interest in brains, behaviour and evolution. ‘Empathy’ is a widely discussed phenomenon, the existence and significance of mirror neurons is hotly debated and I suspect this year will see a shift in the evolutionary debate towards those who argue for group selection.

Although Robert Putnam’s work on values and diversity is important (and challenging) we could also do with more sociological research on why fairness is more or less powerful as a social norm in different types of places and communities.

Finally, people for whom justice is the most important value have to accept that most people are less motivated and more pragmatic. I am sure most voters would subscribe to the Ralwsian exception; inequality can be justified if it increases the aggregate well-being of everyone, including the disadvantaged. This is one reason why the left has seized so enthusiastically on the evidence presented by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level.

Nor is it simply that arguments for justice have to contend with an economic/utilitarian calculus, there is also the value people ascribe to freedom as a virtue. Whilst people on the political left tend to assume that greater equality is a characteristic of a better society, those with less strong political leanings may see the connection between justice and progress as more contingent.

I have said before that one important aspect of what I call ‘the social aspiration gap’ is that we are not in any way on track to deliver a widely shared value; namely that all children should have reasonably equal life chances. I adhere strongly to this value (and I believe any credible meritocrat must also be an advocate of greater equality across society in general), but I also think the case for fair life chance is more likely to be furthered if progressives move beyond assertion and theory (however elegantly expressed) to an account and strategy informed by wider insights into public values and human nature.



  • Joe

    It seems to me that the difference between procedural and distributional justice as notions of fairness is based in the concept of human nature. If you believe, not only that every child should have equal life chances, but also that every child, barring extremes, naturally possesses the ability to achieve equally, then the separation of distributional and procedural injustice is false. Instead distributional injustice must be seen as linked to procedural injustice.

    However distributional injustice should not be viewed simply as symptomatic of procedural injustice, but as part of procedural injustice. The distribution of rewards is part of the procedure of deciding how rewards will be allocated in the future. In that sense, if we believe that every child is capable of achieving equally, then we must look to address both distributional and procedural injustice as one problem, not as two.

  • http://www.intouniversity.org Hugh Rayment-Pickard

    One of the reasons that we are not on track to achieving fair chances for all young people is that some people must forsake status and privilege. Middle class parents support fairness as an ideal at the same time as (understandably) trying to win unfair advantages for their own children.

  • junius

    I am not sure that a majority view of ‘distriubutional justice’ would be ‘social equality’ in that this, despite being a well worn left cliche, is impossible to define in practice and equally as impossible to deliver. (For example, given the scale of social diversity and differences in ability, talent, need and so on among individuals, how can a comparative benchmark for establishing ‘equality’ be created?) Much more likely, its definition would comprise an agreed civilized standard for living (below which no-one can fall) and the (significant) reduction of inequality.

    I agree with Joe that so-called ‘procedural justice’ and ‘distributional justice’ cannot in reality be separated because ‘procedural justice’ would seem to refer to the norms of behaviour necessary to aspire toward in order to fulfil the essential contract between each and every one of us so that the civilized standard for living or ‘distributional justice’ can be delivered.

    This means ‘rights and responsibilities’ or satifying need and making social contributions or however you want to describe it. ‘Rights and responsibilities’ must equally condemn benefit fraud and tax avoidance/ evasion if an agreed civilized standard is to be achieved.

    I am afraid that I also reject the ‘grand narrative’ or ‘big idea’ technocratic-managerialist approach which arrogates to itself the presumption that this can simply be parachuted from above as an intervention into society by a well meaning intellectual elite.

    Incidentally, Mr Taylor, I do not think that ‘meritocracy’ necessarily advocates greater equality. The ‘Rise of the Meritocracy’ was, after all, a Swiftian satire which predicted an ultimate popular uprising against it.

  • http://www.urbanpollinators.co.uk Julian Dobson

    Surely the point about any narrative of social justice is to recognise that power and advantage are not fairly shared in the sense that some have greater access that others. That’s not a question of merit but of whether the playing field is level.

    Interestingly, this is no longer a left-right argument in the way Matthew suggests. On the right there is growing awareness that you cannot ask citizens to take on more individual responsibilities if they lack the means to exercise them – that’s why localism has become so important to conservatives. On the left the arguments are familiar, but are fundamentally about a philosophical assertion about the worth of human beings. Take that away and you’re left with utilitarianism, which probably favours inequality.

    This matters in the context of Matthew’s previous posts about self-help, because whatever your politics you have to work on two levels: equipping people to exercise agency over their own futures, and addressing the power relationships that act as blockages. it seems to me that this requires us to address both precedural and distributional aspects of social justice, and both local and universal concepts of fairness. The result is always going to be a work in progress, but it could be a work in progress that offers hope of change rather than perpetuation of things as they are,

  • http://ziobastone.wordpress.com/ Zio Bastone

    ‘[T]he case for fair life chance is more likely to be furthered if progressives move beyond assertion and theory (however elegantly expressed) to an account and strategy informed by wider insights into public values and human nature.’

    ‘You can’t change human nature,’ is an argument used more typically by conservatives than by ‘progressives’. ‘Progressives’ typicaly make the Pascalian wager (and it squares with the distinction drawn by Lakoff between nurturing parents versus stern ones) that whilst it may or may not be possible to cure ourselves of, say, hurting and exploiting others it is at least worth having a go. And the 2005 Haifa childcare experiment (much quoted by Michael Sandell) shows how even what we presume to be human nature may have different facets.

    As to ‘public values’, vide Castoriadis on the imaginary institution of society amongst many, many others. The beliefs we hold in common, even homophobic and racist ones, tend to be fixed until they change. The interesting question is how those changes come about and how (if at all) we can know when change is ‘good’.

    Incidentally I agree with Junius (in addition to what he says about grand narratives) that no-man’s-land placeholders such as ‘equality’ (and ‘fairness’) aren’t much use. Indeed a recent piece in an Italian journal took apart how ‘equitable’ has become code for rolling back reform, not advancing it. The ‘Big Society’ appears to me to be code for making Society smaller.

  • Name Withheld

    This emphasis on ‘fairness’ shifts our focus away from achievement. For example, in business, if one wants to create a social enterprise, the first question the founder is bombarded with is “What is your legal structure?” My response is, what should it matter? To them, it is vitally important that any opportunity I may have of achieving “extraordinary” benefits is limited. They don’t seem to think/care about how adopting a non profit legal structure may reduce my ability to raise capital in the future (thus lessening my chance of success). Nor do they apparently care about whether the social good that is delivered in the long run far outweighs any potential personal gain.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/edward-harkins/15/40/635 Edward Harki8ns FRSA

    Matthew I wonder if the most salient point in our contemporary society is that the untrammelled greed and avarice being displayed by our corporate elites – led by the banks and financial services sectors – run roughshod over both procedural justice (playing by the rules) and distributional justice (social equality).

    The challenge facing us now is how can we coral the elites back in, in the interests of all society? The gross and growing unjustified inequality in power as well as money in the UK, leaves UK society without the means to remedy this state of affairs.

    I can recall JK Galbraith on BBC radio in the late 1980s warning that the UK was fast following the USA down the road to where we are now.

    I seems that our political class is, for certain, much to dissolute and ‘bought’ to meet this task. The responsibility for changing things for the better probably now lies with civic society and what our political elites once disdainfully castigated as ‘extra parliamentary action’.

  • junius

    The definition of ‘equitable’ from the Oxford English Dictionary (Online)- as derived from ‘equity’- is the quality of being fair and impartial in decision making. Any decision realized through the (party) political process is almost inevitably not ‘fair and impartial’ in this sense, so our task is to delve below the defintion’s surface veneer to ascertain the ideological purpose for the actual decisions being made.

    In terms of reining in corporate might through ‘extra-parliamentary action’, the question is raised about the nature of the capacity and how it can be built for such action to successfully challenge the power of corporate entities which, in themselves, may be greater than that of nation states? In addition, whether such capacity can be deployed to achieve its objectives in a peaceful fashion which engages with and wins majority democratic support from the population.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/edward-harkins/15/40/635 Edward Harkins FRSA

    Junius, salient points you make on extra-parliamentary action to retrieve the situation.

    On you first question I would have to answer that this is indeed a challenge the enfeebled state of much of civic society is a direct consequence of the might of the corporates and vested interests. I could hardly argue that the corporates and vested interests have wrought great societal damage, and then deny the consequences of that damage.

    This reality is one of the aspects that makes for exciting reading of trends and developments across contemporary UK society. I speculate on whether the pervasiveness of the Internet is making something the likes of a UK version of an ‘Arab Spring’ at least a matter for contention.

    I discern all around stirrings and explorations of all sorts in the UK. Perhaps more importantly, I see rejection of existing institutions and modes and rejections of the so-called ‘consensus’ in many fields. Incidentally, one part of one so-called consensus was that extra-parliamentary action must equal violence and disorder heralding the arrival of the Horsemen of the Apocoplyse (All the while, of course, the corporates and vested interests were, arguably, pursuing extra-parliamentary action – in part by subjugating the democratic parliament process).

    There is an argument to be made that maybe we could not prevent the descent of extra-parliamentary action into disorder, and maybe there is not the capacity out-with Parliament to be found – but that for me is a Doomsday scenario. It is, in effect, acknowledging that we have does not work, and that nothing can be done about it.

  • Name Withheld

    Seeking objective measures of fairness or pitting one group against another is as fruitless an exercise as attempting to unravel the ideological leanings underpinning our decision making. I am unsure whether to classify such activities as tantamount to fiddling while Rome is burning; or, as attempts to ‘look’ engaged or concerned for the masses without being accountable for actually accomplishing anything.

    It is incredibly unfair for liberals to expect today’s youth to risk being saddled with a criminal record in order to call attention to the obvious.

  • Name Withheld

    Seeking objective measures of fairness or pitting one group against another is as fruitless an exercise as attempting to unravel the ideological leanings underpinning our decision making.

    I am unsure whether to classify such activities as tantamount to fiddling while Rome is burning; or, as attempts to ‘look’ engaged or concerned for the masses without being held accountable for actually accomplishing anything.

    It is unreasonable for those with power to abdicate their ability to change the status quo. Reflection is important but not at the expense of creating new opportunities.

    Such inaction leads some to expect today’s youth to call attention to the lack of opportunities for advancement through disorderly conduct. This ‘pass the buck’ strategy is unfair for many reasons, notwithstanding their risk of being saddled with a criminal record.

  • Robert Burns


    as I have written before the problem with all these debates is that there is no common linguistic space (syntax and semantics) through which any meaningful discussion can take place.

    This completely eliminates the possibility of objectivity – that is, the filtering out of group self-interest in the meanings attached to language.

    Without that the whole thing never makes it off the blocks.

    Something else that is deeply disturbing is the attachment of notions of ‘merit’ to a quest for some sort of ‘calculus’ through which to assess individual and group human worth to ‘society’ and achieve ‘Meritocracy’.

    This is the political equivalent of rabies and needs to be treated as such.

    The deviant coalition of big institution capitalism, a morally bankrupt (agnostic if you like) political class, political correctness and failed multi-culturalism have already taken us too far for any solution to be possible by conventional political means.

    Unlike other contributors I do not think public disorder or ‘revolution’ are viable options for producing constructive change either.

    The self-inflicted structural damage is too great.