The concept of fairness, in my opinion, is somehow defined by the concept of empathy through some searches by Daniel Goleman in his book Social Intelligence.

The book deals with scientific measurement through MRI.

Ethic and Moral are also trying to define what is fair.

Can you give me some hint achieving a definition of what is fair?

i.e. why killing people, slavery, exploiting are not fair stuff?

  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes killing is fair and justified. Other times it is not. Often it is up to someone's interpretation what the case may be (as in the recent example of George Zimmerman). Therein lies your problem. $\endgroup$
    – theMayer
    Mar 15, 2014 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, you are right. Also if there are other example in which is really harder to state that is right to do something. THe problem it's that some ethic says that the people has to defend by themself. $\endgroup$
    – Revious
    Mar 15, 2014 at 18:46

4 Answers 4


I'd say that 'fairness' would be best treated as a narrow concept not encompassing the whole of empathy/ethics/morals, otherwise the term ceases to be specific and useful. I.e., something could be perceived as both cruel/evil but still fair/just; and harsh 'eye for eye' style punishments are perceived as fair in some cultures but still require some disconnect of empathy.

I believe that experiments of Kahneman and others such as the Dictator game are a good place to start - as this way can measure [an aspect of] fairness in a somewhat objective way and observe how the concept of fairness is different for different cultures.

  • $\begingroup$ I know that experiments have been done saying that Medic loose empathy or that we are more empathetic to our same group. Maybe the word "fair" is more near to "justice" which is near to "rules" which are near to "beliefs" (and to manipulation from mass media, government and so on). Instead empathy can be measured through experiment and MRI and it should be less subject to change upon cultures. However maybe I can choose another word more appropriate. Can you give me a suggestion? "good behaving"? "human"? "merciful"? $\endgroup$
    – Revious
    Mar 14, 2014 at 13:04

I would also urge you to think about equality vs. equity as two important facets to understanding fairness, especially in the context of heterogeneous societies.

Simply put, Equality is the idea that all individuals are exactly equal. If X people work on a project, all of them would get remunerated exactly the same amount.

On the other hand, Equity is the idea that there exists a quid pro quo i.e. if X people work on a project individuals would get paid proportional to the amount of work they put in.

Both could be considered "fair" depending on your perspective. In fact, it has been shown that individuals tend to switch between equity and equality when self-presentational concerns are made salient. (Ref: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022103176900792)

Needless to say, this "fairness" debate guides discussion on Affirmative Action in the West and social reservation policies in countries like India. I like the following piece which sums up this discussion nicely:



There are a variety of decidedly simple concepts that become infinitely complex when placed under the microscope of scientific scrutiny. I believe you have hit one of them right on the head.

Let's consider a parallel example: pornography. At first glance, what constitutes pornography is decidedly simple and obvious; yet, when the Supreme Court of the United States was asked to formally define pornography, the best that Justice Potter Stewart could come up with was "I know it when I see it."

Clearly, one person does not always see what another does. The same can be said of many such concepts, including fairness and justice. If we truly had a scientific definition of these things, society would be free of nearly every problem we currently face. But, we don't, and we won't.


Personally informed answer and I don't need to reference (which I will explain):

  • Metaphysical background: It's impossible to claim value without being part-subjective. Reason: such claim must come from a subject and since a moral idea is not a physical phenomenon (it may be brain physics, but unless one can explain it, then one cannot say it's physical), then it cannot be "natural-science like".

  • "Base case": Since it's part-subjective, then it means that it's open to subjective interpretation.

  • "Inductive hypothesis": Since it's open to subjective interpretation, then claim that "anyone can make any sort of moral claim". I.e. "I think slavery is morally correct" and "I think slavery is not morally correct" are about as valid.

  • "Inductive step": Given any moral statement, it's not possible to decide non-subjectively whether it's right or wrong. This is because of "inductive hypothesis".


"fair" is part-subjective.

"good" is part-subjective.

"equality" does not consistently exist, since it's possible to deviate by "applying part-subjectivity".

[any moral statement] is part-subjective.

Semantics of part-subjective:

  • It's subjective and it can be intersubjective. It's not objective, since subjective and objective fundamentally contradict (solipsism).

I don't need reference, because by moral being part-subjective I can choose to or attempt to deviate from any reference.


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