The difference between fairness and equality

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).


  1. Alex Jones · · Reply

    Heraclitus would offer a definition of justice as “becoming”, it is in the nature of boy to become a man, it is in the nature of most boys to prefer playing soccer rather than play with dolls, the nature of a thing is its becoming, and thus it is justice. To move against the nature of a thing, for instance denying boys the need to play with guns is unjust, even if there is a desire to equalise the behaviours of both genders in their play.

    Nature is just because all things follow their natures. Nothing in nature is equal, nor is it fair, such a concept is mere human opinion, which has no place in nature. I won’t appoint a woman into a leadership role because I think it is fair, I do so because I think they have capability to that role.

    There is hubris in the statement the hungry child deserves more food, why? On what basis does a hungry child deserve more food? In nature the hungry die, there is no judgement in nature that says the hungry child deserves more food. If I have no contract with a hungry child, why should I give any food to them? Equality and fairness are delusions, they do no exist in nature, thus I reject them.

  2. If women require special treatment (to the point of initiating force against the rest of society and committing theft on behalf of women) then that implies women are greatly inferior to men at a fundamental level (well beyond obvious things like brute physical strength, which is irrelevant in most ‘white collar’ jobs). To suggest women are inferior to men in this way is a very bold claim.

    Do you have any scientific (or even non scientific) studies which explain exactly how and why women are supposed to be inferior to men?….. or….. is this just an opinion which is totally unsupported by any actual reason or evidence?

  3. The scope of my post was rather narrow and obviously was not meant as a full blown defense of affirmative action. So let me just say that I reject the emphasis on ‘nature’ put forward by Alex Jones. To say that because equality and fairness are human made, artificial concepts they should be rejected seems unnecessary to me. After all the idea of ‘nature’ itself would appear to be a human made concept. All concepts we deal with are human man, the point is to figure out the best ones. This relates to Abandon TV’s objection in that I reject an emphasis on ‘nature’ and I certainly would reject that men are somehow naturally (or as you put it “fundamentally”) superior to women. No the advantages that men enjoy are, just like our concepts, human made. They are historically, socially, economically, politically, culturally contingent and it required special effort and attention to overcome such long ingrained contingencies. I suspect the real heart of our disagreement may lie in the fact that you think practical measures aimed at overcoming unfairness such as affirmative action amount to “force” and “theft”. That’s certainly not how I see things.

  4. “..All concepts we deal with are human man, the point is to figure out the best ones. .”

    A good method for determining the most preferable concepts to embrace is ‘universality’. We can ask “Is X universally preferable?” Things like ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ fail this test. What’s ‘fair’ for one group of people is seldom ‘fair’ for another group of people’. Studies have shown women tend to rank financial earnings much lower down on their list of priorities, than say, free time, a social life, health, quality of life and so on. To earn the top salaries you generally have to sacrifice all of those nice things and become a coffee fuelled workaholic who dies of a heart attack at 45. Most women (and most men for that matter) don’t want to live like that. And so to ‘create opportunities’ for women in this area (by force) is unfair because, BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION, women usually have different priorities.

    And it’s unfair to use force/ theft to help those women who DO have the same ruthless priorities and ambitions as the men in their chosen profession.

    One concept which IS universally preferable is the ‘non aggression principle’. This is the concept that it’s always wrong to initiate force against another person (self defence is not the INITIATION of force and so it is acceptable).

    The NAP already applies in all of society – EXCEPT where governments is concerned.

    “..No the advantages that men enjoy are, just like our concepts, human made…”

    What about the advantages that women enjoy, and have enjoyed throughout history? For centuries women got to stay indoors while the men risked their health and their lives working in dangerous outdoor environments (coal mines, fishing boats, open fields, factories etc) to bring home a wage to support the family. Men (and boys) have always been forced to fight and die in endless wars. Women used to even give men who refused to fight a white feather which meant “you are a coward”. Can you imagine men forcing the women to work in the fields or die in wars?

    It’s no coincidence that women only started campaigning to be allowed into the workplace when the workplace became a largely safe, comfortable environment (ie an office).

    I would suggest that NATURE itself (the need to survive and reproduce) has been the main ‘oppressor’ of both men AND women. For example, the feminist idea of men inventing marriage as a way to oppress women is absurd. In reality marriage was how a woman (and her family and community) got a man to sign a contract saying he would support the woman and their offspring for life. Nature itself dictates that a pregnant woman, and a woman with young children, can’t support herself and so the man was required to commit to providing for her BEFORE he got to have sex with her.

    ‘Patriarchy’ is all about survival in an age when life was tough for everybody. All survival strategies tend to favour the woman because it is the woman who has to carry the child, give birth and nurture them in infancy.

    “….I suspect the real heart of our disagreement may lie in the fact that you think practical measures aimed at overcoming unfairness such as affirmative action amount to “force” and “theft”. That’s certainly not how I see things…”

    How you or I “see things” is irrelevant. What matters are the FACTS. State wealth redistribution (‘welfare’) programs and laws favouring women (such as securing them jobs) are contingent on theft and force. This is not up for debate – it’s just a fact. The only thing we can debate is whether or not that theft/ force is justified on moral grounds or practical grounds.

    MORAL GROUNDS: Would you be prepared (morally speaking) to come over to my house and personally threaten me with violence unless I fund some feminist social program which you want but which I object to? For example, if I refused to fund it would you be prepared to kidnap me at gunpoint, take me away from my family and my career and put me inside a cage? If I tried to defend myself from your aggression (or escape your cage) would you be prepared to shoot me? The government IS prepared to do all of these things to me, and more. If you support government social programs and ‘vote’ for them then you are advocating exactly this kind of violence and theft.

    There is no moral distinction between committing theft/ assault/ kidnapping and getting a third party to commit these crimes on your behalf. If you vote for government social programs you are voting for violence and intimidation to be used against me to further your political aims. Using violence and intimidation to further your political aims is the very definition of terrorism.

    PRACTICAL GROUNDS: Figures show poverty in the US was on the decline year-on-year and was on course to be eliminated altogether. Then the government introduced forced wealth redistribution schemes (ie ‘welfare’) and poverty has been on the rise ever since. Welfare always increases poverty and social dysfunction by rewarding it with money. Welfare also helps to break up the family unit, leading to millions of fatherless households, which in turn damages children – creating a whole new generation of kids incapable of getting ahead in life (who then become dependent on state welfare and crime to survive). Fatherless upbringing is the number one determining factor for criminality, unwanted pregnancies, violence, depression, truancy, substance abuse etc among young people. This is how state ‘welfare’ destroys society.

    There’s nothing wrong with helping the poor but it must never be done through violence and theft. If we all helped the poor *peacefully* and *voluntarily* we’d all have an incentive to help them get OUT of poverty. The government, by contrast, only has an incentive to make poverty worse, because more social dysfunction means more justification for increasing taxes and making government even bigger, more powerful and more interfering.

    Given that the moral AND practical arguments for feminist social programs do not stand up to scrutiny, and given that we agree that neither men or women are inherently superior in any fundamental way (just different), I can’t see why the initiation of force or theft can ever be justified in the name of ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ with respect to women, or any other group.

  5. “State wealth redistribution (‘welfare’) programs and laws favouring women (such as securing them jobs) are contingent on theft and force.”

    And the concept of theft is contingent upon an account of property, as much as you might wish to extinguish debate by merely asserting evaluative concepts like ‘theft’ as facts. Your objection to taxation depends on you having some unimpeachable right to your stuff in the first place, of which you provide no account. It’ll require more than some antiquated theory of Lockean acquisition and just transfer too; we can all see the holes that riddle that theory.

    The NAP is also not universally accepted in society, as you allege. In fact, it leads to some absurd results. Say you leave your baby on your front porch, exposed and starving. You bar anyone from entering your land to feed or assist it. Is it really wrong to push you out of the way and ‘trespass’ to save the child? Do you really have an absolute right to let the child starve?

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