Today's report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has provoked much debate about those complex concepts 'fairness' and 'equality'. It will provoke a lot more. In modern political parlance 'fairness' has the definition of a failed blancmange and is used with all the deliberate lack of precision previously reserved for that now meaningless term  'progressive'. 'Equality' is assumed to be a virtue despite the political regimes that champion it (China, North Korea, Cuba...)  This excellent piece by Julian Glover lays a crucial foundation for understanding. Glover argues that fairness has become meaningless largely because it is widely assumed - not least by the EHRC -  to mean the same thing as equality. Plainly it doesn't. He goes on to suggest that sincere left-wingers should embrace inequality as the inevitable and desirable consequence of any version of fairness worth aspiring to. Discuss, please.     



Though the sentiment behind the article is one I can agree with - that absolute equality of outcome isn't a necessary part of fairness, and that fairness has lost its meaning in political rhetoric through over-use - I felt that the thrust of his argument was tilting at windmills.


As the commenter ‘RedMutley’ puts it below Glover’s piece, “Can you name me a single serious political philosopher of the Left who has ever argued for absolute equality of outcome/income etc? You'll have a hard time finding one.”


Glover marshals John Rawls’ political philosophy (referring, it would seem to Rawls’ ‘difference principle’) to bolster his case that fairness must allow for inequality. But the difference principle is a justification of deviations from equality (otherwise morally preferable), specifically, in that it ‘permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society’. On that basis, Rawls’ principles applied to modern Britain would require a great levelling, of the kind that the advocates of greater (and not absolute) equality for.


Glover writes that ‘we are fooling ourselves if we think we can eradicate inequality.’ Indeed, and who is attempting that? Advocates of greater equality, such as the late Tony Judt, Wilkinson and Pickett and Ed Miliband, have never called for the complete levelling of society. And neither is the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is the removal of unjustifiable - and, for that matter, unfair - inequality that they agitate for. Indeed, in saying he wants a ‘economically unequal but often successful society in which we are spared extremes’ Glover seems to be of a similar mind - he is certainly not defending the status quo described by the EHRC’s report. Is he not, therefore, attacking an ideology that he is incorrectly ascribing to people that he in fact agrees with?


But there is a more fundamental problem with Glover’s piece. He never asks Amartya Sen’s question ‘Equality of What?’ He makes the assumption that those he attacks on the Left (whoever they are) concern themselves only with economic equality. But couldn’t they desire an equality of opportunity? He seems, in fact, to desire such a thing himself, saying that people should be ‘given the space and the right to strive for [economic] inequality: advantage achieved by their own efforts.’ Is that not an equal right to achieve?


By neglecting to ask or answer Sen’s question, a more insightful and philosophically coherent (though less contrarian and inflammatory, it must be said) analysis of the fascinating and particularly relevant relationship between equality and fairness in our political discourse is left unwritten by Glover.

John, I consider the piece excellent because it serves admirably the core purpose of good opinion writing i.e. it stimulates passionate debate. You deploy the terms contrarian and inflammatory as criticisms. I think they are essential elements in broadsheet opinion columns and valuable in that context. Glover is not writing an academic essay and the Guardian would not publish his work if he did. He sets out to identify a flaw in the left's attitude to fairness that has kept Labour out of office for many years. Fairness that obstructs individual aspiration appears unnaceptable to the British electorate except in conditions of total war. Beyond that, it is, I believe, impossible to address questions of equality without giving priority to economic questions. One does not need to pursue Marx's conclusions in order to agree that the economic base often conditions the ideological superstructure.

What is fairness?