Any philosophical discussion about the idea of fairness must first address who is included in the definition of “fair”. Is “fairness” designed only for a sub-sect of the population, or for the population as a whole? Fairness should be defined in such a way as to include all people within the body politic.
A discussion of fairness in regards to political philosophy generally recognizes that there are dignities and rights which belong to each and every person. Therefore anything that is done, by the state or by individuals, which is injurious to those dignities or rights is fundamentally unfair. This is a natural rights conception of what fairness means. It is not the only definition of fairness, of course, but it is certainly the most popular. Laws must not only accomplish their desired aims, but they must do so in a way that does not trample upon the basic rights and dignities of all people. If a law aims to accomplish something good, is efficient at accomplishing that aim, but also tramples the rights of a small sub-group of individuals in the process, then it is an unfair law which should be repealed.
There are other theories of fairness, of course, including the utilitarian sort. No discussion of “fairness” could possibly be complete until Jeremy Bentham’s paraphrasing of how to define justice and fairness is mentioned, “The greatest good for the greatest number”. What Bentham meant by this is that laws should be created according to what maximizes the happiness and “good” for the most people possible. This is what is called a utilitarian argument, meaning that the maximum utility is what is being sought, rather than a recognition of basic rights which should not, or cannot, be subverted. This is an on-going debate in the realm of philosophy and especially political philosophy. But it ought to be an issue which the average voter considers, too, if only briefly. After all, these theories of fairness, abstract as they may be, do tell us something about how we are being governed. A sense of fairness and balance is essential to politics. After all, much of what political science is about is figuring out what is “fair” in terms of the establishment of laws.
Fairness is a virtue that most people learn early on in their lives. They are taught the basic precepts as children and as they mature they come to more fully understand the essential tenets of fairness. It essentially means being free from bias or injustice and it is a virtue that just about everyone attempts to ascribe to. Everyone, that is, except President Barack Obama and his cohorts in Congress.
It is a question worth asking, does Presidential Barack Obama understand the principles of fairness? Does he follow the natural rights or utilitarian understanding of fairness? The truth is, he seems to either not understand or fundamentally misunderstand what the term fairness really means, despite his love for trotting the word out in every major address of the American people.
President Obama’s identification of what he thinks is “fair” shows us that that he does not have a philosophical underpinning for the word, via utilitarianism or natural rights. Instead, he is simply using the word to stoke the hearts and minds of beleaguered voters who feel wronged. Voters should feel wronged, they have every right to feel that way. But it is important to not only identify the source of unfairness, but to accurately resolve it. Barack Obama does not believe there are certain dignities and rights which cannot be negotiated–thus his targeting of the “rich” and his healthcare system’s demands for purchased insurance. Neither does the President provide Bentham’s “…greatest good for the greatest number.” He cannot be following the utilitarian understanding of justice either, since his policies result not in the greatest good for the greatest number, but rather in the greatest good for a very small number, while the masses suffer from them.
So if Obama is not really interested in establishing a more fair set of laws, then why does he use the word so much? The simple answer is obfuscation–he is using the term to his electoral benefit. When he asks the “wealthy” to “pay their fair share”, people should carefully consider what exactly he means by this. Fair is fair–but Obama either does not care what the word means, or does not care to know.