We can distinguish between a broad and a narrow meaning of the term of the terms ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’.

In the broad sense of ‘fair’, an action or outcome is fair if and because this action or state of affairs is, on balance, favoured by consideration of all morally relevant distinctions and reasons taken together. In short, what is fair in this broad sense is whatever is morally favoured, all things considered. If the term ‘fair’ is used in this broad sense, then it is being used as a synonym of ‘morally right, all things considered’. Thus, broad fairness and all-things-considered moral rightness can never conflict.

The narrow sense of ‘fair’ postulates that not all moral distinctions and reasons are relevant to fairness. If some moral distinctions and reasons are not relevant to fairness, then there might be cases in which these other moral distinctions and reasons pull in a different direction from fairness. And there is the further question of whether fairness is in every case more important than morally relevant distinctions and reasons that happen to conflict with fairness.

This post will focus on the narrow sense of ‘fair’. I’ll come back later to examples of conflict between narrow fairness and other moral concerns.

This post will focus on morality, not law. Of course, the law is immensely important, and of course law and morality are often closely aligned, and in any case the law can influence what people and companies should do or avoid doing. However, fairness is not just a matter of what the law says. The law can be and often has been unfair, indeed deeply and systematically unfair. Because the law is not necessarily fair, the foundational questions about fairness are moral, not legal, ones.

How does the workplace differ from private life? In private life, we are under fewer moral restrictions, at least typically. In private life, we are making decisions what to do with our own time, attention, money and other resources. Apart from what we owe others because of promises we’ve made and special responsibilities we have (for example, to family members), we are free to decide how to spend our remaining energy, time and other resources. In the workplace, in contrast, our employers have typically hired our attention and energy. And various rules are relevant in the workplace that are not relevant in private life. I do not mean to suggest that private life is walled off from considerations of fairness. Most of us have no difficulty thinking of examples of unfairness between family members or friends. Nevertheless, my focus here is fairness in the workplace.

Pointing out examples of unfairness is much easier than articulating the underlying feature that unites all examples of unfairness or the underlying feature that unites all examples of fairness. And yet we can identify that one classic example of unfairness is biased inconsistency in the application of rules. If the rule is that everyone should be at work at 9, then it is unfair if some people are chastised or even fined for being late but others who are just as late are not chastised or fined.

Perhaps our strong dislike of biased application of rules goes very deep in our nature. Perhaps, this strong dislike comes from evolution. Have a look at the video of the experiments with Capuchin monkeys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KSryJXDpZo. 

Why do we want consistent and unbiased application of rules?  Is the reason that we feel insulted when we are on the losing end of the biased application of rules? Or is it more that our expectations are upset? So is our concern for unbiased application of rules grounded in a concern for predictability?

Most definitely, unbiased and consistent in the application of rules is not all there is to fairness. Unbiased and consistent application of some rules could be very unfair—if the rules themselves are unfair! Imagine that a company had a rule that men are paid a third more than women for doing exactly the same job. Consistent and unbiased application of such a rule would result in terrible unfairness, because the content of the rule is itself unfair.

At this point you might be thinking that what we need is the unbiased application of fair rules. What are fair rules? Well, one proposal might be that fair rules make distinctions that are relevant and unfair rules make distinctions that are irrelevant.

Presumably, which distinctions are relevant will depend on the purpose of the work. If the work is digging ditches, then the distinction between physically strong and weak applicants is relevant. But physical strength is not relevant if the work is computer programming, counselling, accounting, marketing, and so on. People in marketing are usually more successful if they are upbeat and optimistic. Such qualities are not desirable in engineers or risk assessors.

We shouldn’t go so far as to assume that whatever makes for an efficient workplace is fair. Suppose customers prefer service providers with a certain accent. Is hiring or promoting one person over another purely because of accent fair? Well, hiring or promoting one person because she or he is more easily understood by the customers is fair, and that might partly be a matter of accent. However, suppose the customers can perfectly well understand two people, but simply prefer one of these two people’s accent over the other’s, because of xenophobic or cultural or class-based tastes. Where there is no problem about understanding someone, counting his or her accent against him or her is unfair, since what is making this person less attractive to the customers is the customers’ prejudiced attitudes.

Discrimination legislation, going back over 50 years now, tries to prevent prejudices from distorting the job market, the promotion regime, people’s access to goods and services, etc. Huge improvements on this front have been made. However, the ideal of fairness has not yet been reached.

What I’ve suggested is that distinctions between people are relevant in the workplace where those distinctions make differences in people’s productivity, by which I mean progress towards the goal of the activity. Differences in productivity because of cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, social skills, ingenuity, effort, perseverance, strength, and skill are differences that fairness can, and sometimes must, take as relevant. But where someone’s lower productivity is a consequence of prejudiced attitudes on the part of customers, clients, co-workers, or suppliers, fairness militates against letting those unfair attitudes infect the workplace, including employment, pay, and promotion.

In the discussion after the above presentation, I was subjected to many important questions. These included the question of the extent to which ideas about fairness vary across cultures, the question of to what extent fairness is genetically based, the question of whether all assertions about fairness are irresolvable (I offered as a counterexample the assertion that the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation has been unfair), and the question of how to analyse recently published data about the gender pay gap.

Brad is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Reading. He has authored several books and is currently working on a textbook on moral philosophy , a history of 20th century moral philosophy and a book on fairness.