just  equal  good   ethical  moral
utilitarianism feudalism democratic
What is fairness?

One of the major causes of conflict is that two people think things are not fair. By fair, we can also include the ideas of just, equal, good, ethical or moral, and the mechanisms of how we achieve this state. I am reminded of the following problem. You have two children, and a delicious ice cream cake sits before them. The task is, how to divide it, so that there isn't a fight over who gets the larger half.

A most remarkable solution comes from Game Theory. The optimum strategy: let one child cut the cake, while the other chooses which piece to take! Thus, in order not to get cheated, the cutter is motivated to divide the cake into two halves that are as nearly equal as possible. Greed insures fair division. Each child anticipates what the other will do, (the cutter anticipates the chooser will take the larger piece) and this is what makes it such an interesting game. The children do not have to even think about generosity or what is fair, just self-interest, and the outcome is fair! And if the children cannot decide who is going to cut, well then, it will just melt away!

What is morality?

Well, surely, life is more complex than this. Consider the problem of morality:

"Plato thought of morality as requiring conformity to eternal Forms of the Good and the True....Christian Europe thought of morality as essentially obedience to God. Kant's revolutionary thought is that morality is obedience to a law we impose upon ourselves" (Schneewind,1999). Confucius said: "Don't do to others, what you don't want done to you." In the West, this has been reframed into a directive, more commonly known as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Unfortunately, when phrased in this way, the true intent of the maxim is lost.

Many people in the West are astonished how a civilization, such as the Chinese, could evolve into a moral state, without a belief in God. There is the entrenched belief by many, that we need an omnipotent God, who could punish you and send you to Hell, if you were not good. Lin Yutang, mystified by all the complicated concepts of sin, redemption, the cross, heaven finally asked of a Confucian friend, in the absence of God, why should we be good, and his friend simply replied "We should lead a decent human life simply because we are decent human beings." End of story!

During the 1800's, the British destroyed much of the Chinese civilization, by growing poppy's in India, and exporting the resulting product: opium, into China. Various Chinese officials reasoned without success with British authorities, of how immoral this was. The wealth created during this period, in inflation adjusted dollars, has never been surpassed, and indeed is still controlled by same company. Obviously, this conglomerate, which owns many companies, whose products you buy everyday, is quite successful in keeping itself hidden, since how many of you know its name? And now you also know why present day China remains suspicious of the aims of the West.

What is justice?

American philosopher John Rawls saw "justice as fairness." He realized that a correct theory of justice has tremendous implications with regards to our happiness, as well as economic prosperity. Essentially, he sought to formulate a general set of principles/laws that we all could mutually agree to. He assumed that the well being of society depends on cooperation. His theory is based on traditional theories of social contract as developed by John Locke , Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

So consider the following example: in our present world, some people are rich, and therefore would be opposed to taxation of that wealth to fund welfare, while on the other hand, some people are poor, and therefore would favor such taxes. If we are both to agree on the same set of general principles regarding the fairness of this taxation, then we must both reason as if we do not know what our situation is, whether we are rich or poor! Indeed, by the same reasoning, to be fair, we cannot know our sex, age (whether we are a child or an adult), race, lineage, or talents. And we cannot know what generation we are in, because we want each generation to be fair to any other generation in the consumption of resources. In addition, our feelings for each other must be indifferent. We cannot reason, as least from the point of establishing justice, assuming that we are friends or are from the same clan and therefore wishing to direct more of life's rewards to ourselves than those who are not part of our club. To be fair, we must decide upon the social rules we are to live by, from an "Original Position," before knowing what position in life we will be born into, under a "Veil of Ignorance," of not knowing what our actual situation will be, (terms coined by Prof. John Rawls).

So what general principles can we both accept under the "Veil of Ignorance." One popular ethical principle is called Utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, or the greatest net good. With Utilitarianism, one could argue for slavery or serfdom, since such an organization of human society might maximize the net good. However, arguing from the "Original Position," if you do not know if you are going to be a master or slave then neither you (nor I) could accept a principle that might result in a high chance of being enslaved. As you know, in pursuit of these general principles of justice, we have abolished slavery, although, we have yet to abolish serfdom in some parts of the world. "I know it is heretical," said Nick Bridges, a New Zealand diplomat who served in Beijing and until recently was ambassador to India, "but I think one of the main reasons that China has an advantage is that it underwent a violent revolution. The Communists killed the landlords. India still has them, and they are dragging the country down." The abolition of a feudalistic society, and it hierarchical structure, the subsequent redistribution of wealth, all contributed in making Chinese society more just, leading to its present day remarkable gain in economic productivity. An economist once told me an even more revolutionary idea, that if land ownership in America could be similarly restructured and restricted to personal use only (ie, no landlords), he calculated an increase in productivity, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Certainly, a principle that is acceptable to both of us is the idea of liberty. Each of us should be given the maximum liberty, consistent with equal liberty for all. Presumably, we all like to have as much freedom as possible (who likes being abused or coerced?), but if you don't know your Original Position, then you must choose to accept maximal liberty up to the point where it limits the liberty of another. Right now, we readily accept all kinds of limitations in liberty, because it enhances the over all liberty of each individual. For example, it would be nice to have the freedom to drive our car where ever we want, even on the wrong side of the road. However, we accept a limitation to our liberty, and make the law of driving only on the right side (in the US), which paradoxically increases our freedom, enabling us to get to our destinations quickly and safely. Here, we are also following Kant's formulation of morality, of obedience to a set of laws we impose upon ourselves.

Are inequalities justifiable? Rawl's "difference principle" says that treating people unequally is only justifiable if by doing so, the least advantaged member of society is made better off. For example, it takes many years of schooling to become a medical doctor, and when you finally become one, you have to be on call, and generally work more hours than the average worker. It is only fair that you receive greater compensation for your extra effort. However, greater rewards for doctors are justified only if everyone gets the benefit of better medical care, including the poor or indigent. Such inequality would not be justified if you directed your talents to benefit only the very rich.


Bothamley, Jennifer, (1993), "Dictionary of Theories," London:Gale Research International.

Brown, Roger, (1986), "Social Psychology, 2nd ed," New York:Collier Macmillan, pp. 84-85.

Lin, Yutang (1937), "The Importance of Living," William Morrow: New York, pg.410.

Poundstone, William, (1992), "Prisoner's Dilemma," New York:Doubleday, pg. 43 Rawls, John (1972), "A Theory of Justice," Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp.13-15

Schneewind, Jerome (1999), "Who is the Most Difficult Philosopher to Fathom?" Johns Hopkins Magazine, vol. 51(1), pg. 27

Tempest, Rone (1997), "China's Land Reforms were Key to Outpacing India," Los Angeles Times.

Last updated 21 April 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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