I have been thinking a lot about fairness this week seeing as the Coalition Government places such emphasis on it to justify decisions about welfare benefits in the Comprehensive Spending Review. My guess is the idea of fairness is 'hard-wired' into family life as we grow up - if there is a cake for tea everyone will want their fair share! Hasn't every child complained 'It's Not Fair!' at some point meaning they feel victim to some injustice? But I am not sure that 'Fairness' is an absolute concept in itself, I think it is more the means by which a social value is measured?
As far as I can see there are at least two models of 'fairness' in our society and we seem happy to use both at the same time, even though they contradict each other. On the one hand is the 'hunter' model - I am the hunter, through my own skill, daring and courage I kill the beast; am I not entitled to as much of the meat as I chose for myself? Anything left over can be shared with the others. And on the other hand is the 'mutual' model - we can all be the victim of bad luck, illness or accident may strike at any time through no fault of our own but when it does we can rely on the group to help us recover. The first finds it's expression in banker's bonuses and the second in the NHS and, until very recently the benefit system. Incidentally the RSA reports research evidence that we all routinely attribute our own success to hard work and talent and the success of others to their good fortune!
I have been worrying why I feel so uncomfortable about the use of 'fairness' to justify public policy. It is because it is not clear which model we are talking about in which context - applying the 'hunter' model in the context of NHS would logically mean complete privatisation of all healthcare; everyone would have to look after and pay for their own medical care.
The benefit system was set up on the presumption that some members of our society would have bad luck - sickness which prevented you from working or losing your job. It was intended to be a safety net until people got back on their feet, actually this was called the 'Social Contract' by a previous Conservative administration. However the Coalition Government is presenting a view that a large proportion of people in receipt of benefits are not unlucky at all, instead we are led to believe (probably on the back of focus group discussions) that they are feckless, lazy and 'sponging' off the rest of us. The idea of 'Fairness' in this context depends on whether you accept the premise that people are generally feckless or alternatively you believe they are unlucky. I think if we actually understood the lives of the worst off in our society we would find it is misfortune, bad luck that is almost always the root cause of their circumstances.
So for me the issue is not really 'fairness' at all, it is a question of social justice - whether we want a society in which everyone's dignity is respected and effort is rewarded but 'from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.'