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Author Topic: Musing: Equality vs Fairness  (Read 202 times)

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Offline DallasTopic starter

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Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« on: May 22, 2020, 03:31:26 AM »
John, Rick and Sam have started a neighborhood land-mowing business, together. As a company, they decide to charge $50 a house (front lawn, backyard).

One day; John mows 3 houses, Rick mows 2, Sam mows 1. Total, they mowed 6 houses that day and net $300, altogether.

Equality (at least, in a literal and absolute sense) dictates that they split the money in three ways, with each of them making $100. But that isn't exactly fair.

Appeals to fairness would suggest that they each get paid individually for the amount of work that they did. Therefore, John would make $150, Rick would take in $100 and Sam would get $50.

In another example; Lucy, Mark and Jun want to watch a ball game over a fair sized fence. Mark is tall enough to see over it, but Lucy and Jun are not. There are three crates nearby to stand on.

The ideals of Equality propose that they each get a single crate to stand on to clear the fence. Now Lucy can see over the fence along with Mark. But the short Jun cannot. Since Mark doesn't really need a crate, he could let Jun stand on two crates to see over the fence.

At least, this is my interpretation on how these two are different. Yet, I would say it is possible to have situations where things can be both equal and fair. I would say that this is part of why they are so often confused with being the same.

Offline Nachtmahr

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #1 on: May 22, 2020, 08:44:25 AM »
While I do agree that equal and fair, or equality and fairness aren't synonymous, I think it's important to think of them as still somewhat related. Their relationship, in my opinion, is best described as being somewhat symbiotic. To strive for equality is ultimately to strive for fairness, fairness here being defined as what is "right" in a democratically liberal sense, referring to ethical standards like the concept of universal human rights and so on.

I don't think that even an absolutist view of equality would be to say that these three men should be paid the same regardless of the effort they put in. In fact, that would neither be fair nor make them equal. Instead, what makes them equal is that they essentially reap the same reward for the same amount of work. If we assume that Sam spent one hour mowing his one lawn, and John spent 3 hours mowing three, then equality has still been achieved when he receives three times the money that Sam received. Ultimately, one hour of work is worth 50$, and thus it logically follows that three hours are worth 150$. It would actually be a breach of John's equality if he worked significantly harder and longer than his business partner, but wasn't compensated accordingly. Why should Sam be rewarded more than John relative to the overall work that was carried out that day?

So, in short, there is really nothing about John's, Rick's and Sam's business venture that's inherently unequal because they split the money fairly between them.

Equality in most modern liberal democracies is most commonly understood in terms of rights and opportunities, as opposed to fairness, because fairness can be hard to define.

Let's say that John and Rick had yet to hire a third man, and both Sam and Lucy applied. Where inequality could be introduced into this equation is if John and Rick decide not to hire Lucy because Lucy is a woman. In this scenario, we see actual inequality, because John and Rick are applying an arbitrary standard that Lucy cannot compensate for on her CV. It's obviously unfair to be turned down for a job because of an arbitrary, unrelated factor like that. It is also a breach of Lucy's human rights, as those dictate that she ought be considered an equal human to Sam. And who knows - perhaps she's even better at mowing lawns than he is. From what we've seen so far, he seems like a pretty poor choice. 

But let's take a real world example: Education.

Where I live, education is free (for the most part, anyway). It's free because if it wasn't financially disadvantaged or irresponsible families would have significantly fewer opportunities than middle- or upper class families, who can easily afford to put their children through college if they so desire. This creates an unfair, arbitrary unbalance. If Sam's family is wealthy, Sam has more and better opportunities in life than his classmate, Lucy, whose family is poor, and that makes them unequal. In this case, Lucy's fate is essentially to inherit the life-pattern of her parents, because the society she lives in does not offer her the opportunity to change it; or in case it does, Lucy will have to face significantly more hurdles along the way than Sam will. Lucy's family is yet another arbitrary factor that shouldn't impact her ability to move her life in whatever direction she wants. That would give Sam an unfair advantage based on something as arbitrary as having been born into the right family, even if he has a history of putting in less effort than everyone else!

Now let's return to your point about absolute equality. Let's say that Sam and Lucy took the same classes, completed the same courses, and eventually both earned a degree in the same field. For them to be equal in that absolute sense would then essentially mean that they would have had to receive the same grades. But that (in accordance with what I have written thus far) is not actually what equality is. Nor would it be fair. What equality means in this sense is that they have both had the opportunity to go down this route and do these things. Not necessarily that they can expect the same outcome. The only way in which equality effects the outcome is essentially by ruling out that arbitrary, unrelated factors should have a pat to play in what they do going forwards. For example, Sam and Lucy should be judged based on their merits as people and their capacity for lawn mowing, rather than factors outside of their control.

This idea of equality is of course unique to liberal democracies that support the notion of universal human rights - in the grad scheme of things, you will find many countries, and many peoples, who disagree with certain aspects.

But let's take a different example, similar to the second one you present: Stairs.

Stairs are great. They're healthy, they're.. Uh.. Well, I don't really know what other positive qualities stairs have. I'm actually not a big stair fan, but I didn't want that bias to weigh me down in my endeavor to turn them into an example of how equality and fairness are related concepts.

So, what's the big problem with? Well, some people can't go up or down them. This, once again, presents us with an obvious problem in terms of equality and fairness. Luckily, we have two great equalizers to solve this problems - ramps and elevators. Ramps and elevators essentially equalize the playing field, giving people who can't walk up or down stairs the same opportunities as employees, as consumers, as tourists, etc. as those of us who can. Since the majority of people can overcome the hurdle that stairs present, almost everything has been designed to exclusively suit those people, but it shouldn't really be difficult to see how this is kind of unfair to those who can't. Since this unfairness is tied to a seemingly arbitrary idea that cities, houses, train stations and more ought to be designed a certain way, it becomes a matter of lacking equality - a matter of basic human rights.

An example of when there beings stairs and no elevator is not an equality problem is if, say, Sam is simply too lazy to walk them. He's tired, it's been a long day of mowing a lawn for an hour, and he just doesn't want to climb the stairs to his first floor apartment. Well, in this case, the design is not unfair, because Sam's dislike for stairs is based on a personal preference, not an arbitrary factor outside of his control. If he's not willing to put in the effort, as we have repeatedly shown that he isn't, then that's his problem. In short, Sam has the opportunity to climb the stairs to get home, something that Lucy might not have, in which case her choices in where to live are restricted by an arbitrary factor outside of her control.

I've used the word arbitrary a lot. I'm now going to turn things upside down for a moment: Equality is, in and of itself, arbitrary. This is the case with any philosophical stance that cannot be tied to strictly naturalist worldview. The idea of striving to reduce the impact of arbitrary factors on the lives of individuals is, in my opinion, a good one; but some might object and say that, at some point, it goes too far. If one person as a unique problem, we can't redesign the whole world around that issue. And I would ultimately have to agree with that. So we have set an arbitrary bar for how much equality is reasonable, and how much is impractical for everyone involved. But that's a whole different discussion, but an interesting one nonetheless.

In conclusion: I don't necessarily agree that the concepts of equality and fairness are different, but I nonetheless think that it's important that we think of them as symbiotic, in the sense that to strive for equality is to strive for fairness in the sense that an individual should not be confined to certain way of life based on arbitrary factors outside of their control. At least not if we have any serious intention of keeping up the values of a liberal democracy. Things can be unfair in ways that are not necessarily tied to a lack of opportunities or an even playing field, and thus the two words cannot be considered synonymous, but they have very close ties.

As long as John, Rick and Sam aren't compensated differently based on arbitrary factors unrelated to the effort they put in, there is still equality in their workplace while industrious John reaps greater rewards than lazy Sam.

Offline Thufir Hawat

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2020, 03:37:34 AM »
But then, what if Sam isn't lazy and works 3 hours like the top earner?  He just gets 3 times less done in the same workday.
Is it fair for Sam to get 3 times less per his less efficient hours >:)? If

Online Remiel

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #3 on: May 23, 2020, 11:53:48 AM »
I'm going to complicate your scenario a bit.

Let's say that John has, for whatever reason--perhaps he saved up; perhaps he simply has the "privelege" of having a rich family or connections--a riding lawn mower.  Sam, on the other hand, only has the manual kind.  Therefore, John can be three times as efficient as Sam, and cut three times as many lawns in the same amount of time.  In this scenario, neither are lazy--both work hard, both put in an hour of work.  The difference is simply that, due to the accident of fate of having access to a more efficient method of cutting lawns, John can accomplish three times as much as Sam. 

In this scenario, what is "fair"?  Is it fair to say, hey, it is not Sam's fault he is not able to accomplish as much as John; therefore John should give some of his hard-earned money to Sam?  Or do we say: objectively, John cut three times as many lawns as Sam, therefore it is only right and proper that he should earn three times as much?

The riding lawn mower is, obviously, a metaphor for whatever society and the free market have deemed to make a person more economically valuable than others--whether it be his skills, talents, resources, connections, intelligence, good looks, the "privelege" of being born a certain race or gender, or simply that whatever it is he has to sell is, for whatever reason, in high demand.  The Adam Smith/Ayn Rand libertarian would say that a person earns exactly what a person should earn, assuming that the "invisible hand" of the marketplace is allowed to operate unfettered.  One might argue that this is the purest form of "fairness", even if it results in extreme inequality.

Offline Nachtmahr

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #4 on: May 23, 2020, 07:30:13 PM »
Ah!

Well, that's an interesting spin to put on it.

The first thing I think has to be taken into account would be whether John and Sam, assuming they're both industrious people and do their best, are paid based on hours worked or lawns mowed. In the first case, we'd have to make the case that John actually worked harder than Sam to deserve a higher reward for what he achieved over the span of a single hour compared to his coworker. If they were rewarded based on total lawns mowed, I think it's important to consider, for the scenario to still be equal, whether or not Sam had the opportunity to save up and invest in more efficient tools himself. If he did, but made the decision not to, that doesn't mean John and Sam aren't equals, as, with all things being equal, you can't really account for people's priorities in life. What ultimately matters is whether or not certain opportunities were arbitrarily denied or offered one or the other.

Let's say that Sam couldn't invest in better equipment, even if he wanted to. For one reason or another, Sam is financially disadvantaged and cannot afford the upgrade. Therefore he is now unable to compete with John, since John had an arbitrary advantage in that, for the sake of this example, his wealthy parents were willing to invest in his lawn mowing business.

In an ideal world, John's and Sam's families also had the same opportunities in life, and thus both had more or less equal chances at making it big and supporting their respective children in their endeavor to do the same. But the real world is rarely ideal. There are several complex economic, cultural, social and biological factors that restrict people in one way or another. But I think that's an even more complex discussion that sort of veers off the topic first laid out in Dallas' initial post.

Ultimately, I think my intended point was something to the effect of: Fairness and equality might not be synonymous, but ultimately the struggle for equality is the struggle for the highest possible amount of fairness in terms of meaningful life opportunities, even if that interpretation of their relationship might lend itself to questions as to what constitutes a meaningful opportunity.

Ultimately, I think a debate about the market and how it determines who wins and who looses is a different discussion though. A far more complex one

Offline DallasTopic starter

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Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #5 on: May 23, 2020, 07:34:29 PM »
I think all of this is fine. I am more interested in what has been contributed to this, so far.

I wanted to expand on ways that it is possible for fair and equal to both apply, as well as when only one can apply at the 'sacrifice' of the other.

These are really interesting reads, so far.  :-)

Online Remiel

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #6 on: May 23, 2020, 07:58:24 PM »
I think it's important to consider, for the scenario to still be equal, whether or not Sam had the opportunity to save up and invest in more efficient tools himself.

In my hypothetical, we do not know whether John arrived by his economic advantage by virtue of his own hard work and investment, or by, e.g. having rich parents.  And we do not know whether Sam had the same opportunity, or lacked it.  We do not know.  I framed the hypothetical on purpose so that we do not know. 

Because, frankly, it is irrelevant.

Life isn't fair.  We've all heard this, and I don't think anyone would disagree with this statement.  As long as differences exist between individuals--and differences will always exist, because if they did not, we would be perfectly identical robots, all rolling off the same assembly line together--there will be people who are stronger than others.  Faster than others.  Smarter than others.  More attractive than others.   More well-adapted than others for a particular environment. 

Life isn't fair.

The question, then, becomes, what do we do about it?  Do we take away from the people who have more and give to those who have less in an attempt to level the playing field, to put people on a more equal footing?  Well, yes, we do, in America.  We have a progressive tax structure (the more money you make, the higher percentage of your income you pay in taxes) and government-funded social services for those at the bottom of the social ladder, paid for by those at the top.   We take some of John's money, the money that he earned by doing the same amount of work as Sam, and give it to Sam.

Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that this is a bad thing.  Saying that, hey, economic equality is important, even if it comes at the cost of fairness, is a position I can respect.

But my point is that, in order to achieve greater equality, we have to be patently unfair.

Offline Nachtmahr

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #7 on: May 24, 2020, 08:55:29 AM »
Well, I frankly don't disagree with anything you've said so far. I think we're probably on the same page, but we're coming at this from slightly different angles.

Is life fair? Absolutely not. And it never will be. To me, equality is essentially the struggle to try and compensate for some of life's unfairness, in areas where it makes sense. Should we compensate for the fact that Usain Bolt is faster than I could realistically become by forcing him to run with a handicap? Certainly not. Because ultimately, in my view, that's not a meaningful unfairness. There are no scenarios outside of world-class competitive sprinting where Bolt's speed presents any real advantage in a modern setting, that couldn't be compensated for one way or the other. It's unfair, but it is what it is. On the other hand, if you have a healthcare system where people who earn above a certain amount are afforded certain privileges and treatments that those on the bottom rung aren't, that, in my view, presents a meaningful level of unfairness, because it places a real restriction on an individual that is, in my opinion (I live in a country with tax-funded universal public healthcare), unjustified. Should your financial potential determine your prospects in life? Well, I don't personally think so. At least not if your financial prospects are tied to arbitrary factors. Such a system essentially builds on the idea of being able to determine an individual's existential worthiness, and that's obviously a dangerous road to go down.

One can disagree with that if they want, as one can with any other philosophical point of view.

Just like one can have different views on what it means to be equal.

For me, being equal mean having the same basic rights, and being afforded the same basic opportunities, so that one at least has a fair chance to shape their life the way they want to, without arbitrary restrictions. If John and Sam were afforded the same basic opportunities to become gardeners, I'd say they were still close enough to equal, even if John's fortuitous circumstances might force Sam to look for work elsewhere, or rethink his strategy. Not everything in how they conduct their business will be fair, and since we live in a market economy, what it comes down to is essentially figuring out what level of unfairness is tolerable.

Obviously the idea of absolute equality in an all-encompassing sense brings up uncomfortable imagery of clones in bland uniforms, performing the same repetitive function over and over, before returning home to their drab concrete apartment complex, where their stereotypical family awaits their officially mandated evening meal. Such a society would be perfectly equal, but nightmarish for most. But embracing individuality at any level means we have to accept the simple fact that life is unfair. Some are gifted in certain ways, some are not. Some have advantages that others don't.

Thus, in conclusion, my view is that the best we can do is to try and compensate for life's unfairness at a basic level, be that through a progressive tax-code or any other given system, to make people equal in the most vital, most meaningful ways imaginable. That struggle does indeed, as you rightly point out, include the problem of unfairness, how much is tolerable and to whom we may justify being unfair.

You may correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we mostly agree, even if my initial post was far more basic than need be to truly uncover the complexity of the relationship between equality and fairness, although that was my goal.

Online Remiel

Re: Musing: Equality vs Fairness
« Reply #8 on: May 25, 2020, 10:33:37 AM »
Yeah, I think we do mostly agree.  In my younger days, I used to hold a more libertarian philosophy, but the older I get the more I realize that a civilized society, one in which we think of human beings as more than merely resources to be used and exploited, requires by necessity some sort of centralized, democratically elected government with the power to hold corporations and private entities in check.  Even Theodore Roosevelt, often beloved of conservatives and "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" types, was a famed trustbuster--he saw the danger in monopolies (trusts) and actively worked to break them up.

There are some aspects of life that I think should be available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay for them--access to public parks, for example.  Police (public safety) and fire services are another.  Environmental protection.  Basic education.  I would even go so far to include some sort of state-sponsored secondary education, because a well-educated workforce is a more productive workforce.  And, yes, access to basic health care, because it is--yes--unfair to expect someone to work if they're sick.  Although that particular issue is a bit tricky, in that we have to agree how we define the term "basic".  Thanks to advances in medical science, people are now living longer and longer.  Does the public have a responsibility to fund an expensive heart transplant?  How about a kidney transplant?  How about a lung transplant for a chronic smoker?  Should birth control and contraception be federally funded?  What about Viagra?

So, yes, when it comes to policy, I think we more or less agree.  My problem with liberals and progressives is that they tend to come at it from an angle of "did that person deserve their wealth?" which, frankly, I don't think should be anybody's business.  We can decide we want a more equitable society, and that is all well and good, but once we start taking it upon ourselves to decide who deserves to have money and who does not, we get into very dangerous territory.