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Alan Ryan Fairness and Philosophy THE IMPORTANCE OF DISCUSSIONS OF FAIRNESS IN THE POLITICAL philosophy o f the past half-century needs no demonstration. Mentioning John Rawls is enough. But I mention him only to say that what follows is not much indebted to his extraordinary work and the over 2,000 pieces of commentary it has provoked. I think my most fruit­ ful contribution will be to throw out a half-dozen suggestions about why fairness matters, what conceptions of fairness animate us in eveiyday life, and how amenable they are to philosophical tidying up and politi­ cal implementation. Rawls, you remember, produced what he labelled a theory of “justice as fairness.”What this meant was a theory ofjustice that described the social institutions that would be created as the result of a hypothetical contract made under conditions that ensured that all the contractors had to treat one another fairly. My thoughts overlap only in agreeing that “fairness” is a foundational notion; I do not rely on hypothetical contracts, nor do I think that either justice or fairness is mostly a matter of institutional design. THE PHILOSOPHERS’ SUGGESTIO FALSI David Hume numbered justice among the “artificial virtues.” He did so because he thought we were “naturally” inclined to praise and blame certain actions or dispositions, and that this praising and blaming was the expression of a moral sense. There are good reasons founded in human nature and the circumstances of ordinary life as to why we tend to agree in these acts of praising and blaming, but praising and blaming are essentially expressive and not descriptive. We naturally and immedi­ social research Vol 73 : No 2 : Summer 2006 597 ately praise kindness and blame cruelty, for instance. The reason the requirements ofjustice were described as “artificial”was that there are occasions when the immediate reactions of the moral sense are at odds with the considered judgments of justice. If I see someone begging in the street and relieve his distress by giving him $10, your first reaction is to approve my generosity; you then discover that I have given him the $10 that I have borrowed from a friend, and you decide that I had “no right” to hand over money that was not truly “mine.” The immedi­ ate object of approval is my generous act; the fact it entails a breach of a promise rests on the existence of social conventions about ownership and promise-making, so it is a secondary and in that sense artificial consideration. Analytically, this has much to be said for it—it is a plausible thought that some actions are immediately admirable, others admi­ rable only when we have had time to reflect about them. Relieving distress is plainly good; doing it with someone else’s resources less so. In that sense, Hume’s notion o f the “artificial” quality ofjustice has some purchase. Psychologically and genetically, it is not at all obvious that he was right. The first cry o f most children is not, “it is ungenerous,” but “it’s not fair.” “Why not me?” or in the converse case, “Why me?” This is the ciy that all parents and school teachers are used to. The child who says “it’s not optimific” has yet to be bom, rumors about Jeremy Bentham’s first words notwithstanding. So, pace Hume and Rawls, one might think thatfairness—and especially unfairness—is a basic element of moral and political judgment, not “artificial” or best understood in terms of conventions, and not a virtue of institutions particularly. UNFAIRNESS AND IRRATIONALITY At the risk of resurrecting some notably unsuccessful arguments from the 1950s, I want to say a bit about fairness and reasonableness. There was a brief moment when philosophers thought that “distinguishing cases on relevant grounds” would yield an account of moral rationality and sweep up issues of fairness as well. So, for instance, if your chances of being executed for a crime you have not committed are higher in 598 social research Texas than in any other jurisdiction in the United States, you might think this is unfair to the inhabitants of Texas because one’s location in one part of the United States...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 597-606
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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