Morality as Fairness

"[I]t is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequenses will not be events. For there must be something right in the formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself." --Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, 1921, paragraph 6.422)


To the thoughts in this essay I owe a great deal to John Rawls and his theory of justice as it is explained in Justice as Fairness (1958). Rawls, in turn, attributes them to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (1953). I will attempt to show that morality and ethics spring from our desires and the interactions with people of similar desires. It is clear that our sense of fairness comes from our conscience, which in turn has to do with our ability to imagine the feelings and thoughts of others. And this we do because we see others as individuals and not objects.


All our actions are directed by our desires. For example, if I go and have some food it is because of my desire to eat. The driving force of an action can always be understood from the action itself. We see from the actions of others that they have similar desires to ourselves. The abilities to understand the feelings of others is called empathy or compassion, and a person who has these abilities will feel bad when he does something which he knows will cause pain and suffering to other individuals. A person who does not have this ability is declared mentally ill and is usually kept in a hospital to prevent him from harming other people. A competent observer will always understand when he causes harm to other people simply because he sees them as individuals and not objects devoid of emotions.


What is fairness, then? We all have desires and we want people to treat us according to those desires. We also know that people around us have similar desires and want to be treated accordingly. Fairness is closely related to fair play so it seems logical to conclude that a fair system is a system where everybody is treated in a similar way and where they have the option to fulfill their desires in any way they wish. Let us for a moment imagine a state of perfect fairness where everybody has the maximum abilities to fulfill their desires according to rules that are the same for all. What I'm saying is not that it is necessary to be able to concieve of such a state to be able to understand fairness, but I think it can help us to concieve of fairness at this moment.

This would be a state where everybody had the biggest possibilities to do as they pleased which would be compatible with the same possibilities for everybody else. Whenever we would not be in that state we would be in an unfair state and everybody, who is a competent observer and not a sick person, would understand from what is said above that this would not be fair. It would also be possible in some way to measure the distance of the present state from the state of perfect fairness and everybody who is a competent observer would feel for those who were treated unfairly and would therefore desire to have a more fair system. This, of course, must also be weighed against their egoistical desires to act in their own interest at the cost of other persons, which might be stronger than the altruistic ones. However, even the most greedy egoist would know that he was not being fair.

Does morality require a perfect observer or an absolute foundation?

As I said, it is not necessary to be able to conceive of a system of perfect fairness to know when there is more or less fairness. Anyone can compare his actions against each other and see which is most fair. Since we can relate actions to each other it is not necessary to concieve of a system of perfect fairness. An analogy to this can be found in the science of thermodynamics, where elements contain an entity called enthalpy. Enthalpy can be understood as the total sum of heat energy of the element. Enthalpy has no absolute foundation so instead enthalpies of elements are related to the enthalpy of other elements, usually hydrogen.

So what is needed to understand fairness and thus morality is a competent observer who can relate the effects of his actions against each other - no perfect observer and no absolute is necessary. On the contrary, I think it has been a big mistake by many great men, as well as many idiots, in the past to believe that morality requires an absolute. The belief in absolute creators who impose absolute laws on people through divine inspiration has been the cause of much human suffering, has prevented people from seeing the true nature of morality and has become a foundation for authoritarianism and tyranny.

Two guidelines for conduct

The conception of morality as fairness leads to two guidelines of conduct which are of highest virtue and can be found in most philosophies: Do what you will, but harm no one and treat others as you would like them to treat you. The reward from following them will be the appreciation of others and a sense of satisfaction from knowing that you have acted in their best interest. The punishment from violating them will be your bad conscience.

Ethics and society

If there were no sick people without compassion or no egoists driven only by their own motives, conscience would be enough to maintain the fairest system possible, but since this is not a perfect world it contains all kinds of people. Thus laws are necessary for a fair society. The issue of how such a society should be constructed lies outside the scope of this essay so I will not go into any details, but I think it is of the utmost importance that such a society treats everyone, including criminals fairly.

How should we treat animals?

The issue of animals, too, lies outside the scope of this essay. If we want to extend morality to include animals depends on the grade to which we see them as individuals. Because of the superior of human intellect compaired to other animals I think it would be very hard to build a system that would be fair to everybody, including animals, but I will let that issue stay open for the future to decide.


I have presented a justification for fairness and compassion as the cornerstones for morality. Morality springs from the ability of individuals to imagine the emotions of other individuals. This leads to empathy which in turn leads to a sense of fairness and morality. To understand morality there is not required a belief in a perfect observer or an absolute. Only a competent observer who can value his actions against each other is needed.

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