Why fairness matters

I have previously referred to TM Scanlon’s highly accessible monograph Why does Inequality Matter?, and wanted to highlight a couple of further elements from that book.

Scanlon identifies 6 reasons to object to particular forms of inequality, in effect accepting that some (perhaps all?) other forms of inequality are inevitable, and maybe that they are also acceptable:

  1. Inequality can be objectionable because it creates humiliating differences in status.
  2. Inequality can be objectionable because it gives the rich unacceptable forms of power over those who have less.
  3. Inequality can be objectionable because it undermines equality of economic opportunity.
  4. Inequality can be objectionable because it undermines the fairness of political institutions.
  5. Inequality can be objectionable because it results from violation of a requirement of equal concern for the interests of those to whom the government is obligated to provide some benefit.
  6. Inequality of income and wealth can be objectionable because it arises from economic institutions that are unfair.

But in effect these are the situations where inequality is unfair, and to use the language of fairness would cut through the need to define and address this question of those inequalities that are deemed acceptable and those that are unacceptable.

To my mind, the most successful parts of the book are those that explicitly do use the language of fairness. These, in particular chapters 4, 5 and 6, are where Scanlon discusses equality of opportunity. Here he talks in large part about procedural fairness, and fairness in the political system. “Political fairness requires both properly functioning institutions and appropriate background conditions,” Scanlon writes, and identifies ways in which inequality — unfairness — can undermine those background conditions and so undermine political fairness. 

Fairness matters because we as humans mind about unfairness and if we find ourselves living in an unfair world, it undermines our faith in political and economic systems. That’s what this blog will continue to seek to explore.


Why does Inequality Matter?, T M Scanlon, Oxford University Press, 2018