Opinion: Fairness cannot exist without justice

A minimalist pastel-colored illustration depicting 4 figures on a see-saw. Two large persons stand on the left side, and two smaller persons stand on the right. To ensure the seesaw is level, the two on the right stand on boxes. Centered above them is a yellow circle with an equal sign inside.

My conception of fairness accords largely with that of John Rawls, a philosopher whose work “Justice as Fairness” principally deals with the rejection of the utilitarian principle of happiness as a satisfactory moral indicator. He instead focuses on the concepts of justice and fairness and explores how the two are related through an ethics lens. Before discussing my own views on the topic, I would like to outline Rawls’ argument, as it is the foundation for mine. Stay with me! I’ll try to make this as clear as possible.

Rawls relies on his definitions of fairness and justice, as well as several other terms such as practice—by which he means a social institution such as religion or government (p. 461)—and person, which can be taken to mean human individual, but also “nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on” (p. 462). I replace his “person” with “participant,” though I retain the ambiguous meaning. Rawls also has two principles that are crucial to a just society: 1) everyone has the same basic liberties, which can never be taken away, and 2) there is fair equality of opportunity, meaning a lack of discrimination and access to education so that the “least-advantaged members of society” benefit as well.

Quick recap:

  • Two principles for a just society:
    • Basic liberties and
    • Fair equality of opportunity;
  • “Justice” means that all participants have an equal say. In other words, the playing field is truly level, and every single player has a turn at bat;
  • “Fairness” means that all the participants have agreed that something is fair. It means that together they have come up with some rules and agreed to abide by them;
  •  “Practice” refers to any institution;
  • “Participant” refers to not only individuals, but also groups of individuals.

Read over the bullet points above one more time, please! Make sure you understand the difference between justice and fairness, and between practice and participant. Now we’ll move forward with Rawls’ argument for justice as fairness, which boils down to these four points:  

  1. In order to be fair AND just, a practice must acknowledge the duty of fair play and accept the three principles of justice: liberty, equality, and reward for services contributing to the common good. | In other words, a fair and just institution recognizes and listens to all its participants and plays by the rules everyone agreed on.
  2. A practice is UNFAIR when its equal and willing participants disagree that it accords with principles set forth by and agreed upon by all participants. | In other words, when an institution’s rules are called into question because not everyone agrees to them. This happens regularly, as people and circumstances evolve and question now-outdated rules that need to be changed.
  3. A practice is UNJUST when not all participants have an equal opportunity to decide whether a practice is FAIR. | An institution that does not recognize or listen to all its participants can never be fair. A clear-cut example is a dictatorship.
  4. In order to be fair, a practice must be just; therefore, addressing injustice is of higher priority than fairness. | In other words, an institution that does not recognize or listen to all its participants is not just. An unjust institution can never be fair.

The three principles of justice as laid out in (1) are the most important part of Rawls’ argument. His definitions of the first two ideas, liberty and equality, suffice to explain the point: “first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage” (p. 462). These principles, Rawls (p. 472) writes, have an absolute weight. That is, they are not dependent upon another factor such as happiness. As for “fair play,” Rawls (p. 468) defines it as a moral duty which—stay with me here!—“implies a constraint on self-interest in particular cases,” as well as is a “necessary part of the criterion for recognizing another as a person with similar interests and feelings as oneself.” In other words, “fair play” is directly tied to the ability to empathize with others! It seems that empathy, then, is needed to facilitate an understanding of justice, which in turn is needed to generate fairness. For more on empathy, see my opinion on Free Speech.

Oh, my goodness! Let’s get an instant replay on that:

Empathy –> Justice –> Fairness

Obviously it’s not that simple, but for our purposes that’s good enough.

What I extrapolate from Rawls’ essay is that it is possible that a practice may be just but unfair, but we cannot have a fair practice that is unjust. (See (2) and (3) above!) For example, slavery can never be fair because it is unjust. A religious institution may be just, but it can be unfair because laymen may not have a say in whether a practice is moral or true (e.g., the division between Catholics and Protestants regarding the Eucharist).

With this foundation in place, we can look at how I personally conceptualize fairness. More often than not, those in powerful positions (i.e., government of institutions) are older, able-bodied white men. That means, for me, that they do not—and likely cannot—empathize with or understand me and my circumstances. What better way to illustrate that these persons in power often do not take the time to listen to those who have a disability or are of a different sexuality or gender or color than the examples of: 2017 protest to Medicaid cuts resulted in 50 arrests of disabled protesters; and the comparison between political and legislative response to a year of BLM protests and the 2021 attempted coup at the Capitol? According to Rawls’ argument for justice as fairness, it is clear that the practice—governing persons and law enforcement of the United States—is perpetuating an UNJUST system, as not everyone has an equal opportunity to create the rules. And, as the formula states, an unjust system can never be fair.

Justice means that everyone has a voice of their own—without having to rely on another individual who also speaks for people whose experiences and opinions may not reflect one’s own. Justice means having the same opportunities and means to succeed as everyone else, including those at the top. Fairness means we can have a proper debate about the laws that govern us. Fairness cannot exist without justice.

Do you see where we are here?

-Leigh Ann


John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” The Philosophical Review 67 (Duke University Press, 1958), pp. 164 – 94.


Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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