The Fair Society

 Peter Corning looks for an idealistic vision for society in his book “The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.”
 In his book, he proposes a biosocial contract, so called because it is grounded in a biological perspective on human nature and the human condition. An organized human society can be characterized as being, in essence, a collective survival enterprise that is concerned primarily with the ongoing survival and reproductive needs of its members. A new biosocial contract must strive to achieve a fair society.
There are three precepts for fairness — equality, equity (merit) and reciprocity — that must be combined into a package and balanced in order to create a society that is relatively fair and just to everyone in terms of both benefits and costs. Corning believes that capitalism or socialism can never be considered fair, even in theory. He believes in a fair society based on these three principles.
What is fairness? And why do we care? The dictionaries define fairness as “equitable, honest, impartial dealings” (Oxford English Dictionary), “freedom from self interest, prejudice or favoritism” (Merriam-Webster), “free from bias, dishonesty or injustice” (
The problem, of course, is deciding what is equitable, free from bias, impartial and so forth in any given situation. In short, fairness is not some sort of cosmic absolute or an open moral fact. There are very often two or more sides to any fairness issue, and sometimes a disinterested party is needed. Some of the hardest fairness calls in real-life situations are cases where our traditional rules of thumb do not work — when equal shares are not really appropriate and “equity” (or proportionate shares) is really the fairest way.
Consider the timeless phrase that every parent has heard so many times, “It’s not fair.” Is it fair to give a 5-year-old child and a teenager the same allowance? On the other hand, if there is a birthday party for your 15 year old and her 5-year-old brother is invited so he will not feel left out, is it appropriate to give him an equal-sized portion of the cake? A wise parent will not attempt to be “equitable” in this case. If the cake is big enough, one option is to let the guests choose as much or as little as they like. In effect, a free choice, whenever possible, limits our tendency to make comparisons and to become envious and resentful.
As mentioned before, there are there aspects of fairness — equality, equity (merit) and reciprocity.
Equality, or “equal shares,” is the most fundamental principle of substantive fairness and the easiest to administer. The idea of equal shares is also in accordance with a strong human desire to be treated equally. Equality is important in any cooperative team effort, where everyone contributes, though perhaps in different ways, to the achievement of a collective goal.
Corning prefers to focus on merit when the subject is fairness. He believes that merit, which implies that a reward, or punishment, is earned by the recipient and is a result of his or her actions and circumstances. In capitalist economic theory, merit is closely associated with talent, initiative, private investment, risk taking, hard work and, of course, achievement.
Reciprocity is the third but no less important domain of fairness. When a disciple of Confucius asked him for a single word to describe the basic principle of social life, he is reputed to have answered “reciprocity.” Corning gives a few more examples to emphasize the importance of reciprocity in global world history. He quotes from the Prophet Muhammad, who said, “The noblest religion is this, that thou should like for others what thou like for thyself; and what thou feel as painful for thyself, hold as painful for all others, too.” He also quotes from the Bible to underline the importance of reciprocity: “And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31, quoting Jesus).
Finally, Corning claims, a fair society can only be achieved by collective action. No individual, not even the greatest and most inspiring leader, can be anything more than an instrument for accomplishing our common goals. Corning, referring to US President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, underlines the importance of millions of individual donors. Collectively, their actions helped determine the outcome.
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