Justice is fairness. And there is a difference between fairness and equality. By which I mean there is a difference between treating people fairly and treating people inexactly the same way. It is a failure to appreciate this difference that causes so many people to get so many things wrong. For example, it’s what causes some people to say that feminism is sexist; they think it’s sexist to recognise that women sometimes might require additional support through programs such as affirmative action. They think it’s unfair if we don’t treat men and women in exactly the same way. It’s what causes people like Andrew Bolt to say that aboriginal and Torres strait islander recognition in the form of the AFL’s Indigenous Round is racist; he thinks its racist because by celebrating aboriginal and Torres strait islander people, the AFL fails to treat all AFL players exactly the same. It’s what causes some people to resent welfare recipients; they think it is unfair for some people to get government welfare and not others. But feminism, recognition of indigenous people, and government welfare are not unfair. And that is because even though in a very strict, narrow, (and simplistic) sense, these things might involve some inequality (because they involve some individuals being treated in different ways); there is a difference between equality and fairness.
There are a good many cases when fairness would mean strict equality. For example if I bought a cake and decided to share it with three children, then the fair thing to do would be to give each child an equal share; each child would get a slice exactly the same size. If I did not, to the best of my ability, cut slices of equal size, I would rightly be called unfair and unjust. However this cake example can also show us why sometimes fairness does not mean strict equality. Let us imagine that I had this cake, and I had said I would share it with these children. And when I go to cut up the cake I discover that one of the children is very poor and hasn’t eaten in 3 days. In contrast, the two other children have been gorging themselves on chocolate all week. I think most peoples’ reaction here would be to say that to give all three children an equal slice would actually be unfair. The poor starving kid deserves more. Certainly that is my reaction. Now, I’m not saying there is a way of calculating specifically what the fair division of cake would be. One might argue that upon learning this new information I should give the starving child the entire cake. Others might reasonably argue that since I have already said I would give each of the three children some cake, I must fulfill my promise and at least give the two other children some of the cake, even if I give the starving kid the majority. There is a plurality of reasonable responses regarding the fair distribution of the cake. The point, however, is that this example shows that there are cases where the fair thing to do can very reasonably be considered to treat people differently.
And so feminism cannot be so easily be dismissed as unfair just because it might mean a certain number of spots on corporate boards or in parliament are reserved for women and no spots are reserved for men. Just because there is a difference here in how women and men might be treated, doesn’t mean it is unfair. Same goes for a whole host of other issues.
Elliot Brice has an Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Melbourne and is currently studying a Masters of Teaching (Secondary).