Social Justice and Fairness

William H. Young

In A Theory of Justice (1971), Harvard philosopher John Rawls presented “principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness” and “a conception of social justice…as providing…a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed.”

Rawls amplified those principles and conception:

The principles of social justice…provide a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation…

Social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society….

All social primary goods—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored…

Undeserved inequalities call for redress, and since inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for….In order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into less favorable social positions.

Since the principle for an individual is to advance as far as possible his own welfare…the principle for society is to advance as far as possible the welfare of the group….Social justice is the principle of rational prudence applied to an aggregative conception of the welfare of the group.

Rawls’s conception of social justice became the intellectual underpinning of the progressive welfare state, which not only redistributes material resources to the disadvantaged to produce equality of result, but also socially constructs equality of opportunity to enable equal prospects for success. Thus, in education, social justice as fairness entails group preferences as affirmative action to produce genuine equality of opportunity.

The “fairness” of social justice is equality allocated among groups. Justice is distributed not by evaluation of what the individual person deserves or has earned through his own efforts, but by rights of a group to equal communal sharing of what individuals of a society produce.

Rawls postulated that a “rational” man—applying reason and logic—would be the judge of the “reasonableness” of his theory of justice. “Fairness” is the most subjective form of justice, but still suggests “an appeal to reasonableness and open-mindedness.” (S. I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word, 1968) But postmodern multiculturalism has dismissed reason, the “rationalistic” mentality, and “objective consciousness” as Western cultural artifacts. Further, postmodern multiculturalism has imbued college graduates with an inherent vision of historic unfairness to identity-group victims. Achievement is reflexively equated with unfair race, class, or gender privilege. So much for reasonableness and open-mindedness. The Western application of reason to determine the good has been replaced by subjectivism, relativism, and cultural determinism in the postmodern life of the mind.

Postmodern thinkers socially construct their own reality in which perceived injustices to ascriptive groups must be meliorated by their personal version of social justice as fairness. They consider that their good intentions to dictate fairness constitute virtue and make them morally superior to those who support our founding order and capitalism. In A Bee in the Mouth (2006), Peter Wood observes that “Rawls and his followers are noteworthy for providing a veneer of intellectual justification for the new bigotry” against the alleged defenders of “an unjust and oppressive society.”

Perceiving fairness or unfairness “generates intense arousal of the limbic system,” reports the NeuroLeadership Institute’s Dr. David Rock (“Fair Play,” Psychology Today, November 15, 2009), “with all the attendant changes this brings.” The limbic system is a complex group of structures in the brain associated with our emotions and drives. “It appears to be primarily responsible for our emotional life and has a great deal to do with the formation of memories.” (“Limbic System,” Wikipedia) Rock goes on to point out that:

Since unfairness packs a hefty punch, it’s easy to get upset by small injustices…Kids are finely attuned to fairness from an early age….On the plus side, fairness is hedonically rewarding, activating dopamine cells deep in the brain….The feeling you get from a sense of fairness is one of connecting safely with others, so it’s linked to relatedness. When you feel someone is being fair, there is a feeling of increased trust. …Ignore fairness issues at your peril.

This helps explain why charges of “unfairness” have been so effective in the educational and political spheres. Echoing Rousseau, postmodern subjectivism makes personal feeling and will the highest attributes of man and society. Emotion is the accepted basis for judgment. Speaking in A Bee in the Mouth of what he calls the New Anger as a cultural ideal in America, Wood comments that “we feel entitled to express that emotion and …justified in feeling it” as a “projection of personal power over others.”

For years, in public and higher education, students have been fed the Marxist notion that capitalist economics is a zero-sum game in which the rich steal from the poor,  producing an unfair or unjust outcome. Marxism’s slogan for social justice as fairness is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Modern evolutionary psychology, by contrast, has found (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002)) that human nature has a deep-seated capacity for envy. We are envious zero-sum thinkers, inherently susceptible to the “unfairness” message.

Is it any wonder that political charges that our economic system doesn’t give everyone a “fair shot” or their “fair share,” and that the rich “don’t play by the same rules” have successfully aroused the emotional belief that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy? And the politically-created sense of unfairness has led to a loss of trust in and anger toward the rich, fostering class conflict.

Moreover, many Americans now manifest the narcissistic personality described so well by the late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism (1978) and The Minimal Self (1984). According to Lasch, narcissists have never really grown to adulthood and see the world through child-like eyes and immature logic. Their thinking is dominated by angry infantile fantasies (including unfairness, which to the child is sameness or equality). Wood calls the New Anger “perhaps the most important modality” of the narcissistic personality. Charges of unfairness and appeals to fairness would seem to resonate particularly well with our large body of narcissists.

Rock adds that Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker has a theory about where this intense response to fairness comes from, outlined in his book How the Mind Works (2009)

Pinker thinks that the fairness response has emerged as a by-product of the need to trade efficiently. In your evolutionary past…the best place to store resources would have been by giving “favors” to others….This mental exchange was especially important in hunter-gatherer days…To be good at this kind of trading you need the ability to detect “cheaters,” people who promise but don’t deliver. In this way, people with strong fairness detectors would have evolutionary advantages.

When asked, “Do you think the economic organization we call capitalism is conducive to the human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity that you outline?” Pinker replied, ironically, as follows:

Probably not—these intuitions are probably tuned to face-to-face, tit-for-tat exchanges, not the complex web of highly indirect transactions that make up a market economy….I suspect that you meant the question as an indictment of market economies, but my answer is an indictment of human intuition! I think people should all take economics courses to understand how economies really function and get over the simplistic intuitions that evolution gave us.

(John A. Johnson, An Evolutionary Psychological Analysis about the Fairness of Wealth Disparity, Annual NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society Conference, Binghamton, NY, April 3, 2011)

Next week’s article will contrast the different ideals and principles of social justice with those of capitalism and limited government, our founding order.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: "It's all about Fairness at Work" by Simon Oosterman // CC BY-SA

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