Writer Peter Corning observes: “The word 'fairness' seems to be everywhere in our political dialogue these days.”
He considers the question from both “sides”:
Is it fair for Wall Street bankers who were bailed out by taxpayers to go back to paying bonuses as usual? Is it fair that government employees have generous fringe benefit packages when most taxpayers don’t enjoy similar benefits? Is it fair to reduce taxes for the wealthy while cutting back teacher salaries, Medicaid, and child nutrition programs to reduce budget deficits? Is it fair to require everyone to buy health insurance? On the other hand, is it fair to ask others to pay the health expenses of those who don’t buy insurance?
There are so many differences of opinion on the subject because fairness is not a formula or recipe. Our sense of fairness is shaped by various cultural influences, the immediate context, and, of course, the lure of our own self-interests. Consider how long the US tolerated slavery and how many generations it took for women to obtain the right to vote.
Corning says that fairness “means taking into account different, often conflicting, interests and trying to strike a balance.” And he asserts: "Compromise is an indispensable solvent where fairness issues are concerned.” But in most debates, “Each side has based its case on merit, and each has a legitimate point.”
What could be called the “deep psychology” of fairness also plays a major part in our social contract – the implicit understanding that binds together any stable and reasonably harmonious society.... Any society that systematically shortchanges these needs puts its social contract at risk. Think of Egypt and other Middle Eastern oligarchies...
Corning concludes: “Our innate sense of fairness is about more than simply political rhetoric. It’s a compass that points us in the right direction.”
Peter Corning is the author of “The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.”