November 14, 2010

Replacing Justice With Fairness

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Back in the 1960s, students structured civil rights advocacy around a moral principle: everyone is owed dignity and equal treatment due to their natural rights. It was part and parcel of what you could call a culture of justice.

Now, however, we’ve moved on to a culture of fairness. No longer concerned with “rights” or morality, the student activists of today clamor for “social justice” — basically, that we treat one other nicely. We use neither the rhetorical power of a culture of justice nor the moral principles that once undergirded it. The sole principle we have is “fairness,” a concept we learn in pre-school.

Therefore, we’re told to drink fair trade coffee and fight against sweatshops, because, well, we just should. Otherwise we wouldn’t be playing nice.

How did this transformation take place? I think it began towards the end of the 1960s, when the justice rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement turned into the victimhood ideology of Black Power and radical feminism. Activists no longer preached in the name of universal humanity, and justice was limited to specific groups. Moreover, as things gradually improved for women and minorities the culture of justice became less necessary. Its ultimate success was that it became irrelevant.

The culture of fairness reached its peak in the era of political correctness, when the university culture belittled moral standards in favor of an all-encompassing “acceptance.” Talking about justice became much more difficult because principles were taboo. This trend was also exacerbated by increasing public disapproval of religious language — once a powerful tool for thinking about how to create a just society.

This movement from justice to fairness has resulted in a cultural celebration of apathy. Case in point: Our equivalent of the 1969 March on Washington (in terms of numbers) was Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, where he outlined no real principles save calming down and recognizing that “Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives.” I’m okay, you’re okay. There’s no real reason to disagree.

This apathy about principles makes sense: It’s infinitely harder to galvanize students without the motivating language of justice. And furthermore, the students who do get inspired by “fairness” often demonstrate why it is a poor guiding principle for social action.

Take Fairtrade. Proponents claim it improves the fortunes of the poor by ensuring they make enough money under decent working conditions. One social justice group, the American Jewish World Service, goes so far as to claim that doing otherwise — i.e., buying from “ordinary producers” — is tantamount to theft.

However, that’s a difficult case to make. As noted in a 2008 paper by Marc Sidwell of the Adam Smith Institute, a relatively small percentage of the premiums for Fairtrade coffee goes to the producer. Furthermore, by giving only a specific set of farmers (small landowners) the “Fairtrade” label, Fairtrade activists segment the market, diverting consumers from the large majority of producers. Finally, Fairtrade discourages innovation by subsidizing inefficient means of production, guaranteeing that the people it hopes to help will forever remain poor farmers.

I’d be interested to find anyone who’d defend this set-up as “fair.” But the reality of the culture of fairness is that so long as we can point to one group that’s gotten ahead through our efforts — no matter how small or irrelevant — we need not consider the broader picture. In fact, the subtle message of the culture of fairness is that we shouldn’t think about systems as a whole, because doing so would lead us to come up with principles. “Fairness” is the only acceptable principle precisely because it can mean anything to anyone.

Now I’m not arguing that we must come up with absolute, inflexible moral standards. However, the culture of fairness doesn’t allow us to think seriously about the problems we face today. For example, how can the principle of “fairness” possibly help us analyze the increasingly complex relationship between technology and privacy? Or how we should respond to China’s human rights record, given that it owns most of our debt?

I’m not nostalgic for the time when we needed a culture of justice. But I think it’s undeniable that its absence has made us, and our rhetoric, much poorer.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin