“It’s not fair!”
That’s one of the more common complaints uttered by children. Many parents wisely refuse to get into a discussion about what is and what is not fair and usually just exert their authority with responses along the lines of that’s just how it is.
If there is one thing that centuries of philosophical and psychological literature should have taught us, it’s that there is no such thing as an objective and universal view of what is fair and what is not. ‘Fairness’ is in the eye of the beholder. It is shaped by our own personal world views, moral frameworks and, of course, what we perceive to be in our own self-interest.
Which is why I find little that is more vacuous and ridiculous than politicians and political parties (or anyone else for that matter) claiming that their platforms and actions are driven by a desire for ‘fairness.’ Whose view of fairness? Why should their particular view of what is fair prevail over alternatives?
The reality is that whichever view of fairness prevails is driven by who has the power to impose their own particular perspective. Just like parents have the power to over-rule their children’s perspective of what is fair or not and impose their own.
All this has burst into the open in the rather unseemly EU-in-a-tailspin show to which we are all being treated.
It is not unexpected that the EU and its individual member states are all shouting ‘It’s not fair’ at the top of their voices and are hiding behind the idea of fairness in their stance on vaccine distribution.
Garbage – the lot of it.
Looking at it from one perspective, the EU is getting what it deserves. It was slow to the party and last to sign the contracts. It haggled over pricing. It did not throw billions at the problem to bring manufacturing capacity online. It’s doozy lawyers didn’t strike a contract that was as tight as that signed by the UK that contained the right of first refusal on anything produced on its own territory. The EMA was late to approve the vaccines and, until last week, was still ponderously working through approving the Dutch Helix manufacturing plant.
The EU seemingly didn’t internalise that manufacturing supply issues were almost inevitable as manufacturers struggled to scale up high tech production for vast quantities of vaccines in record time. It spent months talking down the AstraZeneca vaccine before deciding that it wanted more of it, even as it had turned its own populations against it.
On one perspective of fairness, it is absolutely ‘fair’ that the EU is now at the back of the queue. On a different perspective, the EU has exported large numbers of vaccines manufactured on its territory while not receiving any significant number in return. That’s just not fair!
Within the EU there are also different perspectives of fairness. Austria and Eastern European countries feel they are being unfairly treated. The Commission argues that this is simply the result of their own choices (funny that).
All of which to say that debates around what is fair and what is not are utterly sterile and pointless. What it boils down to is negotiation where different parties will use their power and influence to reach some kind of settlement – either by agreement or by the exercise of brute force.
So now the power plays are in full swing. The Commission is threatening vaccine export restrictions. Some member states agree with this use of power. Others fear the political and practical consequences. The Austrian Chancellor is trying to wield his power by threatening a veto if things are not resolved to his satisfaction. All part of the negotiating dance where everyone tries to wield whatever power they believe they have to move towards some kind of outcome that does not disadvantage them politically or practically.
All this to say, let’s stop all this pretence and vacuity that this is all about fairness. There is no such thing that everyone can agree upon. This is a process of negotiation and wielding of power.
My suggestion is: beware of politicians (or anyone else for that matter) that come bearing ‘fairness’ as their standard.
Stephen Gwynne says
Good piece Joe and one that needs to be incorporated into the culture war in the form of a rational debate between technocratic fairness (equality of outcome) and democratic fairness (equality of opportunity).
Hi Joe, did you have a bad night?! Seems all a bit cynical for you and Radix. Are we to desert all human aspirations where we are likely to have different views as to what the precisely mean? Democracy? Sustainable Development? Kindness?…..?
It is not really a legitimate logical leap to go from this concept is disputed to this concept is subjective. Actually we hardly dispute things that are really subjective. Why bother?! Have you come across heated arguments as to whether marmite tastes good or not? Any treatises?!
I have to say I encouraged as sense of justice in my children. Which is maybe why the are not pursuing a career in the City and won’t ever be particularly rich! We may also disagree about what exploitation is but that doesn’t make it a subjective concept either!
Lets not desert aspiration and just accept what is.
Joe Zammit-Lucia says
Henry, a philosophy professor’s favourite lesson is to bring in some cakes, divide the class into groups, give each one a cake and ask them to divide the cake ‘fairly’. Every group ends up dividing the cake in different ways.
We all have a sense of fairness. The danger comes when we start to believe that our own perception of what is fair should be universal. It isn’t. But believing it is is what drives bigotry, division and an inability to listen to others’ perspectives.
You mention ‘democracy’ – what is a fair interpretation of democracy and how it should work has been a contested idea for centuries and will remain so. The challenge is to accept constant contestation of such concepts as a good thing rather than trying to impose one particular perspective. That is the route to aspiration – to getting better. Not shutting down discussion because some people believe they ha ve ‘the answer’ to what is fair and what is not.