I'm wondering if there is an example where something that is fair is actually unethical? After reading about ethics, it seems that if something is fair it cannot be unethical.

Update: Fairness is impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination. Ethics is concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.

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    Evander Holyfield biting back Tyson's ear would have been fair. But it would have also been unethical. Holyfield took the ethical choice, leaving justice to the referee.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 4:25
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    I find the question unanswerable. There are many and wildly different conceptions on what Fairness and Ethics means. Interestingly, many of the examples brought up in the answers so far would not be something I would agree with, really (or often be in a way where either the one or other aspect is pure opinion based).
    – AnoE
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 10:38
  • Can you elaborate what you mean by "fair" in this context? Does it mean receiving the exact same treatment, or something deemed equal by someone?
    – Tvde1
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:13
  • I updated the post.
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:17

8 Answers 8


There’s much disagreement over what is ethical, and even more disagreement over what is fair – not just over definitions for these terms, but what actions fall under definitions that are even agreed upon. But I’ll give it a shot for some common notions of “fair” and “ethical”.

A father loses his 1 year-old baby while traveling. Another person finds the baby, tries to find the original father but cannot, and then raises the baby well, lovingly, and respectably for 8 years. The original father finds the caretaker and authorities get involved. Authorities giving the child back to the original father when the caretaker wants to father the child now can be seen as fair but unethical.

An “eye-for-an-eye” justice system is arguably fair but unethical. If someone cuts another’s hand off, then the justice system cutting the perpetrator’s hand off as a punishment is arguably fair but unethical.

Another example, for many people, is reparations. Though controversial, many would see this as fair but unethical.

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    Thank you very much! Great answer and "eye-for-an-eye" example makes the point. Just to make it clear, this is how I define terms. Fairness is impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination. Ethics is concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. I guess your answer is consistent with these definitions.
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 0:02
  • It says that I need more than 15 points to be able to upvote answers. Strange, it allows to post question but does not allow to upvote answers.
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 20:14
  • This is the message that I get when I click on the up arrow for any answer: You need 15 reputation to upvote posts. Is there a way to override it?
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 23:22
  • @Qwerty Hmm I guess that you can't vote if you are unregistered then. That's just a guess, the message you get is totally misleading if you reported it accurately. Posted on Meta..
    – LoremIpsum
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 15:22

Given a same action, some may say it's fair and others that it's unfair. Likewise, for ethical and unethical.

What can be better ascertained is whether an action is ethical given an ethical system. Consider for example the murderer problem, where the murderer asks you where his innocent prey is. Kant's categorical imperative would mandate one to tell the truth to the murderer, while Utilitarianism would probably conclude that lying to the murderer is the path of action that maximizes happiness and thus should be ethical.

Anyway, this is actually a linguistic problem. The difference (if any) between "right action", "fair action" and "ethical action" depends on how you define each of them.

Not seldom will those terms be used without being defined, and rather being adjusted by each person to its own unsystematic set of beliefs. For example, in the Euthypro dialogue he hastes to say if an action is pious or not, but via his Socratic method Socrates finds out that Eutyphro can't even define piety consistently in the first place.


Fairness becomes unethical when one tries to create fairness by causing harm to those who have an advantage while not providing any benefit.

Example 1: Bob has two legs, but Charlie has only one leg. This situation is clearly unfair, because it gives Bob an unfair advantage over Charlie. One way to remove that unfair advantage of Bob would be to amputate one of his legs. But would it be ethical to cripple a healthy person just to create a fair situation? I don't think so, because the utilitarian net gain is clearly negative.

Note that this is not the case if causing the harm actually is beneficial for someone.

Example 2: Bob has two working kidneys. Charlie has no working kidney. Removing one of Bob's kidney and transplanting it into Charlie does cause some harm to Bob, but considerably improves Charlie's quality of life. The utilitarian net gain will most likely be positive. That makes the procedure both fair and ethical.

However, most schools of medical ethics would only agree that this procedure is ethical as long as both Bob and Charlie consent to the procedure. So most medical practitioners would consider a medical procedure performed without consent unethical, no matter how much fairness it could create.

Example 3: Charlie has only one leg, giving him an unfair disadvantage. Doctors propose to perform a procedure which gives Charlie a prosthetic leg which would reduce that unfair disadvantage. But Charlie refuses the procedure for personal reasons.

Even if the doctors can't understand why Charlie would refuse the procedure, it would be unethical to perform the procedure against the explicit will of the patient.

  • Thank you Philipp! Would an example of someone cursing be appropriate in this context? For instance, a chatbot saying an F word is clearly unethical, but it just does not make any sense to talk about fairness/unfairness in this situation. Do you agree? This is how I define the terms: Fairness is impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination. Ethics is concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 11:51
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    @Qwerty "a chatbot saying an F word is clearly unethical" - is it? I would say it depends on context. And so does whether using it is unfair. For example, it might be unethical and/or unfair to program a chatbot which only insults specific users with the intention to drive them away from a service. It would not be unethical or unfair to create an AI chatbot for entertainment purposes which swears a lot at everyone, as long as the audience makes the decision to chat with it and is aware that it will use lots of swear-words.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 11:59
  • Hmm.... Interesting. But if we specify the chatbot of, say, a medical clinic. For example, the chatbot greets everyone saying "Hello! What the F* is your question?" It's fair because it says it to everyone, but unethical. Would you agree with me here?
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:21
  • @Qwerty I don't think swearing is that good of an example. But let's take something more obviously unethical: A chatbot which intentionally gives people misleading information to cheat them out of their money while pretending to be a reliable source of information. That would be clearly unethical. Would it be fair? If you only look at people who interact with it: Well it tries to cheat everyone equally, so it's as fair as a casino game. But not if you also account for people who do not use the chatbot. It creates an information asymmetry which makes the world less fair.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 13:16
  • Example 4: There is a real-life example of a retired marathon runner who suddenly developed an urge to have his own legs amputated, even though he was physically healthy. He tried and tried to convince surgeons to amputate him. He received help from psychiatrists, but it was unsuccessful. Finally he went to an illegal clinic and for a large sum of money, managed to have his own legs amputated.
    – Stef
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 14:04

You have helpfully sought to explain your terms:

Fairness is impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination. Ethics is concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong.

It would be useful to know how you distinguish the fair from the just. The terms 'fair' and 'just' are sometimes used interchangeably but this is not the case for you since, by your account of fairness, justice is not identical with but an element in or a component of fairness.

A natural context for fairness is the distribution of a good. Suppose we say, then, that fairness in the distribution of a good involves the impartiality of treating like cases equally, different cases differently, and different cases differently in proportion to the extent of their difference. Justice could then be introduced to supply the criterion to be used in determining when, for any given purpose, cases are alike or different.

For instance, we might decide that cases are alike or different on the basis of need or desert. Fairness would then be a matter of treating like cases of need equally or like cases of desert equally, different cases differently, and different cases differently in proportion to the extent of their difference.

So much for fairness. Whether any such distribution is morally good or bad, morally right or wrong, depends on your ethical theory. Suppose, for example, that one adopts a teleological ethical theory according to which the good ought to be distributed in whatever way maximises overall benefit.

There is no a priori guarantee that a fair distribution will yield a distribution that maximises overall benefit. An unfair distribution might maximise overall pleasure or happiness.

I am not recommeding any such ethical theory - or indeed any ethical theory - but simply want to describe a situation in which, depending on how one understands fairness and which ethical theory one adopts, the fair can fail to be the morally good or right - that it can be, in your language, 'actually unethical'.


J. Broome, 'Fairness', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1990 - 1991, New Series, Vol. 91 (1990 - 1991), pp. 87-101.

H. L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law (London 1961), p.156.

M.N.L. Nathan, 'A Difficulty about Justice', Mind , Apr., 1971, New Series, Vol. 80, No. 318 (Apr., 1971), pp. 227-237.

  • upvoted because besides being a good answer, it includes references Commented Feb 11, 2022 at 18:34
  • This is a clear, thorough, and rigorous answer. Thank you for the references. I have a few questions about it: (1) Do you know of any similar references which provide criteria for choosing an ethical theory? (2) Is there some field which studies ethical theories themselves? Would this be metaethics? (3) Does anyone take a formal approach to this problem of choosing an ethical theory, similar to what you might find in e.g. logic or category theory?
    – TheIntern
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 8:18
  • Thanks very much for comment. You pose three further questions. To answer them, I'd need to make extended comments - and it's a site rule that comments are not for extended replies or discussion - or add considerably to my answer. The best plan might be to post your further questions separately. They should attract interest. That's what I'd advise. All the best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 10:31

Something can certainly be fair and unethical. The Italian, Naples-based Gomorra has strict rules of conduct and their moral system (ethics) includes that lying is good. Especially against to the Carabinieri. If this keeps a fellow member out of jail then you can become even a hero. So it would be very unethical to be fair.

I can't comment on the first answer, so I do it here. Everyone can define his own good and bad. Of course. How else could it be? A lying person can be fair in lying. A murderer can be good while murdering. The same holds for a person who tells the truth. She can be viscious.

So the answer is wrong. It presupposes an absolute notion of good and bad. being fair or not fair. There is simply no universal arbitrer on that.

So, ethics is certainly concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. But no universal notion of such exists. What is your wrong and right is anothers right and wrong. Pretending this not to be so testifies of a moral superiority feeling that is even worse than the most abject crime comiited. In fact, the most abject crimes have this feeling of moral superiority at their base. These unshakable moral grounds are walked by people who want the non-morally-conforming banned from their ground because of the fear that an eventual non-moral earthquake might let them fall on the hard steal bottom they are walking on.

  • Thank you! But could you please elaborate on how "lying is good" (ethics) connects to fairness (or unfairness)?
    – Qwerty
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 12:49
  • Dont you mean not-lying with being fair? What do you mean with fair? Being fair is no good in certain situations. You can be a good guy when you lie.
    – user53283
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 12:58
  • @Qwerty This is a perfect example of what LoremIpsum wrote in their answer: The Camorra may define their own moral/ethical code, but that doesn't automatically make this ethical (or fair) for anyone but them. The example is an arbitrary case of that broader insight.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 5:09
  • @PhilipKlöcking Isnt every moral/ethic code defined by a group (or individual) for who its good or bad ti do thing? Denying this assumes the existence of a universal good. Only thinking about this gives me the shivers...
    – user53283
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 6:57
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    See, it gives me shivers if someone says ethics are only about what individuals or groups think is good instead of about what makes a society of humans as equals possible. This does not invalidate my point though: This example is nothing but what the other answer said exemplified as a single case. And no, this answer wasn't mine.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:43

A typical real example is handling of triage of injured people (deciding with limited resources whom to treat and whom to leave dying). Fairness principles like egalitarianism or utilitarianism exist for those situations, but they are conflicting with each other and have ethical doubts raised against them.


What is considered fair is determined by the rules of a game. What is considered ethical is determined by a set of values.


A frequent example nowadays...

Ethical: Guarantee that everyone has access to food, water, shelter, and medical care.

Fair: Don't make anyone pay taxes, ever, no matter what.

These are clearly in conflict. Taxes are unfair to the people who have more money, but we all have to pay them anyway (because we live in a society).

The first point is also fair as it is a more equal distribution of benefits to everyone.

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    Why is it "fair" to never pay taxes? I think it's fair I pay taxes, if I use public infrastructure and public services... I don't think you had very good examples.
    – Tvde1
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:11
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    @Tvde1 the whole question is really that ambiguous... but it's unfair because some people pay more than others. Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:16
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    Some people might also use public services more than others. It's hard to say what's "fair".
    – Tvde1
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:17
  • @Tvde1 exactly, people don't pay taxes in proportion to their public service use Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 12:20

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