Principle No. 4: Be Fair (Part 1)

We can learn everything we need to know about the concept of fairness by looking at how some children behave at birthday parties

Thus far in our exploration of the five fundamental ethical or "life" principles, we have looked at:

Do No Harm

Make Things Better

Respect Others

For the next two weeks we will examine Life Principle No. 4: Be Fair. What is fairness? Why is it so important? How can taking fairness seriously enrich our own lives?

Imagine you have a son, Larry, for whom you throw a birthday party one afternoon. Your sister brings her two boys, Curly and Moe, to the celebration. When Moe gets a bigger piece of birthday cake, Curly cries, "That's not fair." Seeing someone who appears no different than him get more cake strikes Curly as wrong, unjust, unfair.

If there's a good reason to give Curly a smaller piece (say, for example, he is overweight), it's justifiable and fair to cut different sized pieces of cake for the two boys. In fact, it's not only fair, it would be wrong to do otherwise, since one boy deserves a smaller piece (hence the term "dessert," or that which is deserved).

Now suppose that your sister explains to Curly why he's getting a smaller piece, but this reason doesn't placate the lad and he throws a temper tantrum. "All right, young man, now you won't get any," your sister tells him. "I'm taking you home, where you won't get any cake. And because you're acting so childishly, you won't be allowed to watch TV for the rest of the weekend."

Three Branches of Fairness

This response, of course, makes Curly even more upset, and his ratcheted-up tantrum is now justified. After all, he has been on the receiving end of a true injustice: Banishing him from the party and taking away his television privileges for so long seems, by any reasonable standard, an excessive punishment. It is, in short, unfair.

You feel so bad about the turn of events for Larry's special day that you decide to make up for the interruption by having your spouse run out to get the latest child-friendly video game that all the kids will enjoy.

This story introduces us to three branches of the concept of fairness. Imagine a pie chart that represents justice, divided into three equal wedges. They represent, in no particular order:

• Distributive justice, which refers to how scarce resources are made available to a group of people with varying degrees of needs, desires, and other factors. Think of this in terms of who deserves a raise, and how much.

• Retributive justice, which refers to how we punish those who violate standards of behavior. What is fair punishment if an employee does something wrong? Should the fact that the employee happens to be the son or daughter of a close friend matter in deciding this?

• Rectificatory justice, which refers to how we rectify a situation in which a person or group of persons has been treated unfairly. When coming aboard as a new manager, how should you deal with an unjust situation created or ignored by your predecessor?

Let's examine each in turn.

Distributive Justice

"You can't always get what you want," Mick Jagger sang in one of the Rolling Stones' most famous songs, but many of us would beg to differ with his next assertion: "If you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need." How many people do you know who are satisfied with their lot in life? Do your colleagues, friends, and family members believe that their needs are being adequately met? Since we live in a world of scarcity, it is natural to want to know how we are to divide what there is among those who want or need it. Tom Beauchamp and James Childress identify the following as standards we might use to make such a decision:

1. To each person an equal share

2. To each person according to need

3. To each person according to effort

4. To each person according to contribution

5. To each person according to merit

6. To each person according to free-market exchange

One standard isn't necessarily better than another, as Beauchamp and Childress note. Context is everything. For a birthday party in which some children are on a restricted diet because of their weight, it would be wrong to employ standard No. 1. It would be just as wrong to use standard No. 5, because children have equal merit when it comes to getting cake (as opposed to advancing in a spelling bee or musical contest). In the context of a party, "To each according to need" seems like a better criterion to use in distributing cake and ice cream.

When it comes to giving out raises, it would seem that No. 4 or No. 5—contribution and merit—should be considered. But what about the person who puts out more effort than anyone else, yet accomplishes less? How much should effort count?

Even when it seems that a standard is apt, you may have to think again. Let's say the resource in question is something far more scarce than ice cream or money, such as organs for transplant. No. 2—need—might seem obvious. Yet some argue that lifestyle choices that adversely affect one's health—deciding to smoke or failing to seek treatment for alcoholism, for example—should play a role in determining who should be given a transplant.

Obviously this is a complex issue and beyond the scope of this column to address thoroughly. The point is simply that of the six standards listed above for deciding who gets what (and there are other standards one can think of), no one standard applies to every situation. "One size fits all" might apply to baseball hats or mood rings but certainly not to how we realize the life principle of fairness.

Next week, we will conclude our examination of this principle.

Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on

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