Justice, Fairness, and Happiness

The relationship between justice, fairness, and happiness is a challenging one. Many (most?) of us have a highly developed radar for who deserves what, especially when we might be getting the short end of the stick. Further, there is a general believe amongst moral philosophers that it is good and just that people receive what they deserve. At the same time, I think most of us can think of a time when a preoccupation with fairness or justice has ultimately resulted in a great deal of misery for ourselves, even if we were successful in enforcing our beliefs. The puzzle I therefore want to talk about today is the effect that dwelling on perceived injustice or unfairness can have upon us.

Almost by definition most of us agree that it is good for people to receive what they deserve: refuting this almost necessarily requires attacking the very notion of desert itself. In my experience, however, actually getting involved in the nitty gritty of trying to make other people receive what they deserve usually just results in pain and frustration, unless you happen to be in a position of authority. There are some parallels to be drawn to the language of economics, I think. When you are in positive relation to some other individual, the interaction seems to be somewhat like the Aristotelian friendship: each person does well by the other without worrying about each person’s fair share. The justice mentality, however, is one that keeps score. Imbalances can easily become an obsession: an itch at the back of your mind that the other person is either taking advantage of you or the jealous conviction that they are receiving more than they deserve. Much popular wisdom holds that there is little to be gained by dwelling on fairness or justice: to do so is to dwell on the other, and this usually stymies, rather than encourages, an individual’s personal flourishing. I would not claim this as a universal description – a certain concern for fairness and justice is important for preventing others from taking advantage of you. In our daily routine, however, a passion for fairness more often seems to result in unmet expectations and unsolvable arguments – for what argument on fairness is ever resolved with one side agreeing that they have received more than their fare share, or that they were in the wrong?

So the puzzle is this: we generally agree that it is good for the world to be fair and just, but actually policing this fairness in our every day lives can be quite harmful to ourselves. What are we to make of this? The first thing that I think is that a fair or just world may be better than an unjust or unfair world, all else being equal, but unfortunately trying to bring about fairness in the world does not come without cost. Fairness and justice can have high interpersonal costs, not even bringing up the issue of how one actually knows that one is in the right. The second thing that comes to my mind is that the kind of inequities that we encounter with our peers is usually not holistic – we focus on very specific aspects of inequality. However, I am inclined to argue that a world in which we are completely equal is one that might not be worth living in. That being said, persistent unfairness or injustice may be such that they just make certain relationships untenable – if someone never does their fair share of the work in a flat, for example, once the fairness awareness has been triggered conflict may be inevitable.

Let me know what you think!

Thank you,


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