Everyone knows the universe isn't fair, yet many, if not most, people believe that we should strive for fairness. However, some people don't care about fairness, instead being led by greed and the principle "might makes right."

Are there any notable philosophers who weighed in on this issue, on one side of the coin or the other? I believe the ancient Greek philosophers lived in a society where slavery flourished, so I'm guessing they didn't have the most refine concept of fairness.

  • What is "this issue"? The question of what fairness is? – Marc H. Apr 7 '18 at 0:07
  • Fairness is a well-studied topic in philosophy. I don't have the knowledge or resources to provide a good answer, but I will say that tons of fields, not just philosophy, have studied fairness. An expectation of fairness is fundamental to being human. A sense of fairness is displayed by many animals, and all of the social ones. Even in game theory, fairness presents itself as an optimal strategy (if you consider tit-for-tat 'fair'). It makes no sense to claim the universe itself is either fair or unfair, though. The Greeks would have viewed slavery as fair, investigate capital-C Conservatism. – otakucode Apr 7 '18 at 0:12
  • @otakucode - Good tips. Maybe I should reword my question to ask what are the major philosophical schools of thought regarding fairness, or something like that. I'm just fishing for an overview of philosophical views of fairness. – David Blomstrom Apr 7 '18 at 0:28
  • There can not be fairness without complex life. And I mean bacteria are not enough to speak about fairness. But then we can say that complex life also is an anomaly, since it's so uncommon. – rus9384 Apr 7 '18 at 16:20
  • The "Allegory of the Cave" suggests that concepts of justice and slavery in Classical Greece were most likely plastic ("But these are slaves," "No, of course not, you see:"), and that recorded Greek Philosophy probably evolved as a deconstruction of a natural strife which Heraclitus characterized as "justice." – user30980 Apr 7 '18 at 23:11


I would link fairness and unfairness to agency, particularly intentional agency. When someone says, 'The universe isn't fair, why should she get cancer at 18 ?', there is no literal unfairness. The universe isn't an agent who decides who is and who isn't to get cancer. Her cancer is certainly unfortunate, and outside the norm for contracting cancer, but no-one is to blame - certainly not the world as any kind of agent. Her cancer is only unfair if you see the universe as not applying the same rules impartially and equally to each person. No such scenario applies.

Even if unfairness does under some definition prevail in the world, say because on the social side practices, institutions and procedures do not distribute benefits and burdens impartially - hence indefensible differences of pay, hence racial discrimination, hence famine in a world of plenty - that is no reason not to do what we can to act fairly and promote fairness if we see it as a good. If I donate to a charity that supports the homeless, I do not stop my direct debit because there is far more unnecessary and indefensible homelesssness than I can ever prevent. If I have gotten the money to provide a roof over one homeless person's head, that is still right even though thousands remain homeless. I wouldn't call this kind of action anomalous - many people engage in it.

Not a criticism - just setting out the terminology as I understand it.


But you ask about philosophers and fairness. John Rawls has a famous paper on 'Justice as Fairness', The Philosophical Review, vol. 57, 1958. 164-194. This contains the entire kernel of Rawls' greatly longer, A Theory of Justice, Oxford : OUP, 1972. Paper reprinted in John Rawls : Collected Papers, ed. S. Freeman, Harvard : Harvard University Press, 1999, 47-72.

Some books :

Paul Woodruff, The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards. ISBN 10: 0199356882 ISBN 13: 9780199356881. Published by Oxford University Press, 2014. [Much about CEOs' pay but far from limited to that.]

James, Aaron, Fairness in Practice: A Social Contract for a Global Economy (Oxford Political Philosophy). ISBN 10: 0199846154 / ISBN 13: 9780199846153. Published by Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2012.

Stephen T. Asma, Against Fairness. ISBN 10: 0226029867 / ISBN 13: 9780226029863 Published by The University of Chicago Press, United States, 2012.

P. Voice, Rawls Explained: From Fairness to Utopia. ISBN 10: 0812696808 / ISBN 13: 9780812696806. Published by Open Court Publishing Co ,U.S., United States, 2011.

Kolm, Serge-Christophe, Macrojustice : the political economy of fairness. ISBN 10: 0521835038 / ISBN 13: 9780521835039. Published by Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kaplow, Louis; Shavell, Steven, Fairness Versus Welfare. ISBN 10: 0674006224 / ISBN 13: 9780674006225. Published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.

J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. ISBN 10: 0674005112 / ISBN 13: 9780674005112. Published by HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, United States, 2001. (Much expanded and updated version of article.)

G. Klosko, The Principle of Fairness and Political Obligation (Studies in Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy). ISBN 10: 0847677184 / ISBN 13: 9780847677184. Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1992 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1992.

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  • Your answer nailed it, because I was looking for some kind of terminological foundation. Plus, I'm focusing on the word "agency" in relation to another question, so that's a big help, too. – David Blomstrom Apr 8 '18 at 1:00

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