The word “fair” is problematic.
In discussions on fairness, particularly in discussions about social justice, the assertion that an evaluation of fairness is absolute is increasingly prevalent. In the modern landscape, it seems there is an ever-enlarging population of people unwilling to admit that what constitutes fairness could be rather unclear, many making stronger assertions that one has certainly considered all factors there really are to consider in evaluating the fairness of a decision.
I will attempt to make some points in the general, rather than across specific situations and threads of discussion, that are intended as thought experiments for the purpose of analogy. There are multiple questions to evaluate in these situations: What is actually fair? Can multiple solutions be considered fair? Is the fairest solution actually the best solution? What principles are our decisions based on such that this question is answered in this fashion but another otherwise?
Here’s the problem to consider.
There are n people, and nk units of food. What is a fair distribution of the food among these n people?
If your answer is “each person gets k units of food”, my next question is “in all situations?”
What if some of the n people are genetically predisposed to continue feeling hungry until they’ve eaten a noticeably greater amount of food than others?
In this event, distributing the food evenly does give everyone a fair exact quantity of food, but is not a fair distribution from the perspective of the degree to which each individual’s dietary needs are fulfilled.
What if some of the n people are genetically predisposed such that k units of food aren’t even enough to keep them alive, but a substantially larger quantity will?
What if one of the n people is genetically predisposed such that the amount of food necessary to keep them alive is so high that if their need was fulfilled someone else will not be able to stay alive?
What if, instead of genetic predisposition, a certain lifestyle choice, totally in an individual’s control, causes someone to need a greater amount of food? Do they deserve to not get their needs fulfilled because it is their fault?
What if both genetic predisposition and controllable lifestyle choice could cause someone to need a greater amount of food, and the current tools of science cannot reliably pinpoint the cause?
What if the probability ratios of the two were 99.9% and 0.1%, or 0.1% and 99.9%?
How likely is it that this is the case and science has not discovered the 0.1% yet?
What if both genetic predisposition and controllable lifestyle choice could cause someone to need a greater amount of food, and the current tools of science can actually reliably pinpoint the cause; should we now deploy these tools?
What if a lifestyle choice causes the need for a greater amount of food, but an individual who made such a lifestyle choice in the past did not have the education to understand the ramifications of the lifestyle choice?
And if this matters, how does one determine whether someone had the education to understand these ramifications?
What if a scientific study publishes that there exist no genetic predispositions that cause individuals to need greater amounts of food, but an individual claims that they have such a predisposition anyway?
What if the total amount of food that there is to distribute among n people is such that evenly distributed, everyone will not have enough to stay alive, but feeding only a smaller set of the n people, they could live?
How would you choose which people are in this smaller set, if you choose the latter option?
Suppose there were two types of food, but one type is substantially more expensive than the other type. One group of people prefers the cheaper type of food, whereas one group of people prefers the more expensive type of food. What is the right thing to when:
1) The society has just enough resources to satisfactorily feed the first group the cheap type of food, and to feed the second group the expensive type of food?
2) The society has enough resources to satisfactorily feed everyone the cheap type of food, but not enough to feed the second group the expensive type of food?
3) The society doesn’t even have enough resources to satisfactorily feed everyone the cheap type of food?
How does the right decision change if the second group of people were genetically intolerant to the first type of food (say, an allergy)?
How does the right decision change when the first group of people slightly prefers the second type of food?
In the case of an allergy, does this change depending on what sort of an allergy this is, that is, life-threatening, illness-inducing, just a few rashes?
I often hear conversations about fairness that seem oblivious even to the second question on this list. I do hope this does not become the norm of discourse.