On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

Note: To the best of my knowledge, the following analysis of the concept of “fairness” is original; neither Ayn Rand, nor anyone else has analyzed it this way. My analysis of fairness was performed in light of the Objectivist theories of concepts and values. As should become clear to readers familiar with John Rawls and his work, this essay also stands as my refutation of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice.


How many times have you heard people say “Life isn’t fair,” with a resigned shrug, as though this “obvious fact” means there is something inherently wrong (“imperfect”) in the nature of things?

Well, they are right that life, in general, isn’t fair. But this does not mean that “something is inherently wrong,” because life is not unfair, either. Life, in general, is neither fair, nor unfair, because the concept does not apply to life in general.

The concept of fairness comes up in a specific context. The context in which the concept of fairness applies, is that of a zero-sum game designed to test a certain attribute or set of attributes. Saying the game is “zero-sum” means that one person’s win ensures another’s loss; not everyone can win. Such games may be designed to test strength, agility, mental acuity, knowledge, etc.

The rules or circumstances of such a game are said to be “fair” if they are designed in such a way that the game accurately measures the attribute(s) or skill(s) being tested. Those with the greatest measure of the attribute(s) in question are very likely to win. The rules or circumstances of the game are said to be “unfair” if they don’t accurately measure the attribute(s) in question. For example, a race in which one runner starts before the others is unfair, because the others may be faster than that runner, yet not win the race, (which is a zero-sum contest to determine who is fastest.)

But life in general is not a zero-sum game. Because the values that sustain and enrich each person’s life must be produced, rather than taken from others, one person’s gain does not imply another’s loss. Life, in general, is not about winning or losing, it is about production of life-enhancing values. (For further explanation and clarification of this, I refer you to Ayn Rand’s explanation of human nature and morality in The Virtue of Selfishness, the explanation of free markets in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, the novel Atlas Shrugged, and to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

The concept of fairness can be expanded slightly to include such things as trials, in which the defendant “winning” means acquittal, and his “losing” means conviction. The rules in a trial are designed to test the state of genuine evidence against the accused.

But, once again, life as a whole is neither fair, nor unfair, because the concept does not apply. It is neither zero-sum, nor is it artificially designed to test anyone, and both are required for “fairness” to apply. (In this sense, calling life “unfair” is similar to calling a rock “evil.” The rock doesn’t have the attributes necessary for “evil” to apply.) (1)

Often, people will talk about “fairness,” while actually meaning “justice.” But these concepts are not equivalent. Justice is a broader concept than fairness. It is a moral concept that applies to all freely chosen human actions in dealing with others. (2) Justice applies in two related senses: as a personal virtue, and as a societal condition. As a personal virtue, justice means rewarding virtuous behavior and punishing vicious behavior. In other words, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, to the extent of that goodness or evil. In the Objectivist ethics, good behavior is constructive to the lives (rational values) of those close to it, whereas evil behavior is destructive to the lives (rational values) of those associated with it. Thus, the rewarding of those who are good and the punishment and shunning of those who are immoral or evil is a personal virtue, serving to promote and protect one’s own life.

As a societal condition, justice rests on the fact that, in the large majority of cases, good behavior is rewarded and evil is punished, within the society. The extent to which the results of choices (gain/loss of values) match the moral status of those choices, (good/evil) is the extent to which the society is just.

The most important, all-encompassing condition of societal justice is the protection of individual rights to life, liberty, and property. This is essentially equivalent to freedom; that is, freedom from the initiation of physical force or fraud by others. By far, the most pervasive way that people can be punished for doing good things is by force. Stealing (private or governmental) punishes wealth creation and rewards those who haven’t worked to produce wealth, (i.e. things of value.) Extortion punishes wealth production and integrity, (acting according to one’s own judgment) since if one doesn’t act against his own judgment and give in to the extortionist, he is punished. Rape punishes a person just for having a body and being a sexual being. Initiated physical violence or unprovoked imprisonment punishes a person for existing.

Freedom from these punishments is the most basic thing that allows people to be rewarded for good (human life-promoting) behaviors, such as thinking independently, producing wealth, being honest, judging justly, etc. Since human life (the good) is sustained and enriched by the independent thought of each individual, each individual should be rewarded in proportion to his mental effort/virtuous actions, as he would be, were he alone on a large island. (Whether the productive activities in a society are solitary or cooperative, it is still the case that each individual must bear the responsibility for his own mental effort/virtuous actions, or lack thereof. No one can think for him, and even if he learns from others, it is he who must think in order to learn.) Thus, the freedom from coercion (robbery, enslavement, etc.) by others that each individual would have on a deserted island is the essential requirement of a just society. (3)

Now, let’s take two cases and see if and how the concepts of “fairness” and “justice” apply to them.

Case 1: One child is born with sight, while another is born blind. Is this fair or unfair? It is neither. The one child was not given his sight at the expense of the other, and life is not a win-lose contest of who can perform more capably in jobs that require sight. The state of blindness is objectively inferior to having sight, and it is desirable that the blindness be cured, but there is no basis for the term, “unfair.” No one set up a win-lose competition between the two children.

Is this situation just or unjust? Once again, it is neither. Justice, as a moral concept, is applicable only to those facts that are chosen by human beings. Being born blind is generally not the result of anyone’s choices. The birth was the result of human choice, but the blindness was not. The situation is, in Ayn Rand’s terminology, a “metaphysically given” condition–as opposed to a “manmade” condition. Manmade conditions are chosen, and thus subject to moral evaluations, but metaphysically given ones are not; they just are the way they are, and that’s it.

Case 2: One child is born into a wealthy family, while another is born into a poor family. The child of the wealthy family gets all the benefits of a good school, good parenting, good dental care, etc. The child of the poor family drops out of school to work, has somewhat neglectful parents, doesn’t have access to the same level of health care, etc. Is this situation fair or unfair? Again, it is neither. The child of the wealthy family does not have the benefits of wealth at the expense of the child of the poor family. Life is not a race for pleasures, education, jobs, or opportunities. Wealth is desirable. It is nice to be born into a wealthy family. But wealth, when earned, is created, and one family’s wealth does not cause another’s poverty (so long as it isn’t stolen.)

Is this situation just or unjust? As far as the child is concerned, the simple fact of being born—of being brought into existence—can never be either just or unjust to him. Being brought into existence is neither reward, nor punishment; there was no living entity there to be rewarded or punished. In principle, one can morally judge the decision of the parent(s) to have the child on the basis of the effect on the parents’ lives. Once the child is born, it is possible for the parents to be just or unjust to the child. But the mere fact of the level of the family’s wealth can be considered neither a punishment nor a reward for the child.

The justice of the above situation, with regard to wealth, applies to the parents. It is whether or not the wealth of the parents was freely earned, (i.e. earned by the production of objective values, which were then traded by mutual, voluntary consent) and whether or not wealth was stolen from the parents. If all wealth was freely earned, and none was stolen, then the situation is fully just. The benefits that the child of the wealthy family gets are the result of the parents using their justly earned wealth (reward) to promote their own values—specifically, their child’s well-being.

But the child’s actual, long-term happiness has relatively little to do with the wealth of his parents. It has much more to do with the child’s own choices, so long as he lives in a largely free society.

The world is rife with thoughtless, (self-) spoiled, lazy, wasteful, deeply unhappy heirs and heiresses. No amount of unearned money will buy the clarity, serenity, purposefulness and achievement-oriented lifestyle necessary for the deep enjoyment of wealth. No amount of brainless partying will fill the hole in one’s self-esteem left by one’s own lack of thought and purposeful achievement.

The world also contains those who started out in poor families, had to work themselves through school, had to contend with neglectful alcoholics in their families and other problems, yet they rose above that and made successful, happy lives for themselves, essentially through their own choices. The poverty of their childhood did not cripple their happiness for life.

What makes this latter case possible is freedom in society; that is, freedom from coercion by others, including the government. This is freedom from censorship by the government, freedom from being coerced into trade guilds that keep an individual in a certain class, freedom from onerous tax burdens and tax incentives that drain wealth, foreclose opportunities and distort people’s economic judgment, freedom from coercion into or out of certain contractual relationships, (e.g. antitrust statutes and minimum wage laws) freedom from government-mandated business/professional/product licensing and the corrupt politicians and businesses that conspire to forcibly keep competition out of their field, etc. The extent to which force rules in a society—whether it is initiated by the government or by gangs—is the extent to which the society does not allow economic rewards to be based on the free choice to produce wealth (things of value that sustain and enrich human life), and thus, is the extent to which the society is unjust. This is the extent to which cases of the “self-made man,” who became wealthy and successful essentially through reliance on his own thought and judgment, become rare; and this is also the extent to which cases of the idle/unproductive rich become commonplace. (4)(3)

In summary, “fairness” is only for games and trials; “justice,” as a general societal condition, applies to manmade institutions and requires laissez-faire capitalism, as it was described by Ayn Rand.


(1) There is another sense in which people speak of “being fair” in conversations and friendships. This is a minor, derivative meaning that is distinct from the major meaning, and not relevant to my current point. It means to adhere to certain rules that promote productive dialogue and mutually satisfying friendships.

(2) Except in emergencies, in which an immediate physical threat makes one’s own short-term survival incompatible with the otherwise proper evaluation of others.

(3) Again, I recommend Ayn Rand’s works, such as The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal for further explanation and clarification.

(4) What I mean, more precisely, is that government-granted subsidies, protections or monopolies are what allow people to be idle/unproductive and still become wealthier and stay wealthy, themselves. They are what allow long dynasties of unproductive rich to flourish, thus hindering economic justice.


Related Posts:

Why Fairness Does Not Mean Justice: Some Further Argument

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

How Business Executives and Investors Create Wealth and Earn Large Incomes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

America Before The Entitlement State

Taking Philosophy Seriously…

…Means Not Committing The Fallacy of Self-Exclusion.

If philosophy is to be more than a useless mental exercise, or a “bauble of the intellect” as Leonard Peikoff puts it in OPAR, (1) any statement claimed as knowledge must be consistent with the very fact that the philosopher is claiming the truth of the proposition. If the truth of the proposition would invalidate the statement being made by its application to the speaker, then this is an example of the Fallacy of Self-Exclusion. The speaker must arbitrarily exclude himself from the statement in order to “validly” make it.

The most obvious example is the claim that knowledge is impossible to human beings. This statement is itself a claim to knowledge by a human being; so in stating it, the speaker is contradicting himself. (2)

But this fallacy occurs in many more subtle forms:

“There are no absolutes.” That is an absolute statement asserting a negative.

“We can never be 100% certain. All we can know are probabilities.” Well what’s the probability that that statement is true? It should have been put in the form of “There is X% probability that all we can know are probabilities.” Then, what is the value of X based on? More probabilistic premises? How does one avoid an infinite regress and establish a basis for the numbers if nothing is absolutely certain? You will have to come up with a theory that allows for certainty somewhere.

“Human beings are irrational creatures driven by their emotional impulses.” So you got into philosophy on a whim, and that statement is an expression of your emotional impulses? How could any of the irrational, emotionalist creatures around you possibly consider your personal emotional expression as some kind of “universal truth” about human nature?

So, the take-home point here is: whenever considering a proposition or theory in philosophy, especially something regarding epistemology or human nature, apply it to yourself first, to see if the statement is self-refuting. If it is, then the view is untenable as it stands. (3)

The following is an abridgment of a real conversation that I had in a public, online forum. It shows a real case of the Fallacy of Self-Exclusion in action (key parts are highlighted in red):

Him: […M]any people seem to embrace science and the natural world when they’ve left god and church. I seem to be going a step farther: I am coming to the conclusion that all our perceived realities are man-made – not just the religious and the spiritual, but our science as well. Nothing appears to be absolute. I have not settled on this view at all but I am seriously considering it.

All facts are contained within a reference frame or point of view in our heads, that we can’t escape from. We cannot even talk about a fact, an object, an event – out there external to us – w/o injecting our perspective.

It was Immanual Kant that said that when we look at what we consider the real world, we are still looking at it through our internal lens. There is no way to get outside ourselves to look at it objectively. This seems to be true b/c look at all the various opinions on any topic from religion, to spirituality, to economics, to politics, to morality, and even to science. We humans cannot appear to agree on anything.

We coalesse [sic] into groups that have similar perspectives and perceived realities to us individually. Others outside the group have a multitude of different realities when it comes to the topic being discussed. And there is no objective standards that can be used as an arbiter to decide between the differing views.

So this is postmodernism looking glass I guess: relative, subjective, individual, and socially developed.

I am reading a lot about it for and against, so the jury is still out for me.

Me: […] It does not follow that just because you are aware by means of your senses, that your awareness is distorted or subjective. Nor does it follow that just because you think by a means (namely, concepts) that your thinking is biased. Consider an analogy for Kant’s position: A friend calls at noon, and asks you to meet him at a restaurant at 6:30. You agree, and starting at 6:00, you drive there and meet him at 6:30. When you meet him, he says, “Wait, you drove here?”

You say, “Yes.”

“But you can’t really be here.”

“Excuse me?”

“You drove here.”

“Yes, I’m here, am I not?”

“No, it’s not the same. You drove here, and that means you’re not really here. To really be here, you had to just appear.”

“You mean, teleport?”

“Yes. If you had just teleported, you would really be here. But since you drove, you’re not really here.”

Your friend’s name happens to be Immanuel Kant, and you go on to discuss his theory about how the senses are invalid as a means of objective awareness of the “thing-in-itself”, just as driving is an invalid means of “objective travel to the destination-in-itself.”

The fact that you are aware by some means, does not indicate that you are not really aware.

In order to make a claim of knowledge about anything, including the knowledge of the “invalidity” of the senses, you must assume that your senses give you a basis for actual knowledge. So a claim that the senses are invalid is self-contradicting.

It is true that, ultimately, you can only ever see through your own eyes, and hear through your own ears, but this is still seeing and hearing.

Him: […] I am not making a claim about the invalidity of the senses. I am suggesting that the sensory stimulus is not interpreted the same for everyone but is interpreted based on their prior experience and cultural upbringing.

Something that is interesting – people that have experienced severe epileptic seizures and have had the hemispheres of their brains separated to reduce them, where each hemisphere can’t communicate with the other, suggests our brains make things up. In one case, a researcher used an optical device to flash visual messages to a patient who had had this procedure, in such a way that the message reaches only one hemisphere of the brain. So keep in mind that the right hemisphere is not verbally dominant but it can receive and act on a verbal message. So he flashes a command to the patient that says, “smile.” The patient smiles. He flashes “tap,” and the patient taps. The left brain doesn’t know what is going on at this point b/c it never received that message. Even when given those commands the patient says he didn’t see anything. Now the researcher flashes a command to the right hemisphere, “walk.” The patient gets up and starts to walk. When the researcher asks why he is doing this – a verbal inquiry handled by the left hemisphere and the one that didn’t get the command – the patient answers, “I’m going to the fridge to get a Coke.” The left hemisphere made up a perfectly good reason, and also probably based on past experience, but unrelated to what prompted the action. What are we to make of such things?

Me: I think it would be helpful here to define what I mean when I say “reality.” I think that your use of the term “reality” agrees with many modern philosophers, but that this use is improper because it confuses an important distinction. We should be careful to distinguish the difference between reality and beliefs. That is, (roughly speaking) between the physical world as it exists, “out there” and the content of one’s consciousness that is supposed to refer to that world. I like [moderator]’s definition in his signature: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

If we take a simple example: You are standing at the side of a busy street. You see a car coming at 40 mph, but you decide that that car is “not a part of your reality,” you close your eyes, believe with all your will that that car is unreal, and you step out in front of it. Does that car disappear and allow you to cross safely? No, because that car is real. It’s reality will still confront you, even if you manage to convince yourself that it is just an appearance in your head.

Or another example: You convince yourself that you don’t need food to live, but only prayer. You fast continuously, but pray a lot. Will this stop you from getting hungry, losing weight, and eventually dying? Try it. Will this work for someone else who is a true believer? Ask them to try it, and see what they say 5 weeks later.

Your belief in something does not make it “true for you.” There is not “my reality” and “your reality,” but only reality, which is the world that each of us perceives, and my belief and your belief. If my belief corresponds to this one reality, I am right; if it does not, I am wrong. If I have a belief that a car speeding at me won’t hurt me, and I step in front of it based on that belief, I won’t get the result that I expect, because I am wrong.
It is the conceptual interpretation of what your senses give you that is subject to past experiences and cultural ideas. You and a Hindu will both see an object shaped like a book on a table. It is real to both of you. But conceptually, he may recognize it as the Sama Veda, whereas you might not, for any number of reasons (too far away, can’t read the language on the cover, etc.) But you both see the same object, and that object is real.

In the case of the epileptic surgery patient, I see someone who has a specific disability in dealing with reality due to the physical manipulation of his brain. Brain injuries and schizophrenia can also cause problems in perceiving reality and reasoning about it. What does this prove? That reality is subjective? It only proves that some people can be incapable of dealing with reality in various ways. If the researcher had done that experiment with your average man on the street, who had not had his brain operated on, would he have gotten the same result? Almost certainly not.

But do you see the irony of what you’re asking here? You are basically saying, “Look, here is a real, objective fact you should take into consideration. Doesn’t this objective fact show that reality is subjective, and that a fact for one person is not a fact for another?” How can it? How can any fact show that there really are no facts? If reality is subjective, then it is not real in any way that matters, or that distinguishes it from fantasy. If this is the case, I could just as easily concoct my own fantasy and use it to “prove” anything. I could just flatly contradict your example, and say, “No, in my reality, he was able to tell the researcher that he walked because he was told to,” and I would be just as “right” as you are.

At root, you either have to accept the axiom that “existence exists,” (i.e. reality is real) or you have no basis for any conclusion whatsoever. This is why it’s an axiom. Without it, you can’t think any thought or make any statement without falling into self-contradiction.


(1) Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

(2) This is a self-contradiction so long as the proposition, “I am a human being,” is held to be true. Thus, the only way out of self-contradiction is to assert the absurd position, “I am not a human being.” Regardless, if one states, “Knowledge is impossible to [me, or a class to which I belong,]” then it is a self-contradiction.

This fallacy is also sometimes called a “performative contradiction” or a “self-refuting idea.”

(3) Instances of the Fallacy of Self-Exclusion generally employ “stolen concepts.” See Ayn Rand Lexicon: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/stolen_concept,_fallacy_of.html