The meaning of fairness

A number of people have challenged me in recent weeks to define fairness, arguing that it is hard to put too much weight on such an amorphous concept.

Now, I well understand the value of clear definitions and the precision of rules — not least, I studied law, and edited legal journals for several years — but to my mind it is precisely in the imprecision of fairness that its value lies.

Largely, we all know fairness when we see it, and we certainly know unfairness. In many ways, that is the point: human beings have an innate sense of fairness and we mostly aspire to achieve it. The sense of fairness is largely consistent across societies and seems to also be over time. Scientists have shown it is apparent in children as young as 12 months, and is demonstrated across all age-groups. The sense of fairness truly can be said to be an innate sense.

As one of the participants at the Blueprint for Better Business roundtable discussion (see Constrained Resources) said, “The word equality deadens conversations”. She pointed out that the precise nature of the term equality, and the spiky expectation that it creates, makes it a limiting factor on dialogue. Certainly, a lot of discussions seem to waste time on whether the aim of those railing at inequality is absolute equality — when saying that the aim is fairness would avoid such wasted debating efforts. The imprecise concept of fairness allows space for active and vigorous discussion, and so for concrete progress to be made.

So don’t ask me for a definition of fairness. To my mind, it is better that we do not have a precise one, because the delight is that we all understand what we mean by the term — and, we all clearly and certainly understand what unfairness looks like.



Studies evidencing a sense of fairness among very young children:

The developmental foundations of human fairness, McAuliffe, Blake, Steinbeis, Warneken, Nature Human Behaviour, 2017

The developmental origins of fairness: The knowledge-behavior gap, Blake, McAuliffe, Warneken, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(11), 2014

Fairness Expectations and Altruistic Sharing in 15-Month-Old Human Infants, Schmidt, Sommerville, PLoS ONE 6(10), 2011

Egalitarianism in very young children, Fehr, Bernhard, Rockenbach, Nature 454, p1079-84, 2008

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