Defining the difference between utilitarian principles and justice as fairness

© March 2003 Graham Little

This note builds upon and explains aspects of the political paper Vision for New Zealand, and should be read in conjunction with that paper.

The problem of getting a fair go haunts all democratic nations. In many respects New Zealand is blessed, it is small, it is highly educated, communication with even the highest levels of authority in business and government is easy, and quite open, and we have no real terrorism or serious threats to security. My view is that if we cannot make democracy work, then democracy is likely to be a historically short lived experiment.

Interestingly enough some of the positive qualities of New Zealand are also its worst qualities: with the level of intimacy, cronyism is rife, and while money always helps access, it does not guarantee power and influence which is strongly moderated by interpersonal relationship.

For New Zealand to fulfill anything like its potential then significant changes are needed, and for those to be enacted for a decade or two before the benefits finally emerge and become the base of a world leading democracy. The key to the change needed lies in understanding of how to bring fairness to our society, to make it so that we all feel we get a fair go, and while not always getting everything equally to everyone else, we do not feel disadvantaged: a truly level playing field, in line with the popular expression in New Zealand.

To understand the issue we first need understand the typical and orthodox view of how to determine policy and legislation, and how justice is conducted. The orthodox view derived largely from British thinkers of seventeen and eighteen hundreds is that the ‘general good’ is advanced when there is the greatest good for the greatest number. This is utilitarianism. What this means is that if a piece of legislation is being assessed, the moral and ethical views of the majority will override any minority interest, to the point that the minority interest can be ignored, dismissed or overridden. This is what we have, and it works while there is a largely common view of life, lifestyles, religions, morals, and values. When there is a serious divergence of values and lifestyles, utilitarianism becomes a serious problem, with groups splintering and lobbying and pursuing power in order to get what they want, because utilitarianism is not just some abstract political philosophy, it pervades the very political process, and so enables those who grasp and hold power to implement ‘their way’, and to justify this dictatorial position as their view of the common good. At election time, next lot wheeled in, same process, different groups drop each side of line ‘being served/not being served’: A wheel in constant motion going nowhere.

The alternative view of justice was developed by John Rawls, Harvard University, and is outlined in his book A Theory of Justice. The book first edition was 1971, so in terms of evolution of political philosophy this stuff is now, brand new. Further, to the best of my knowledge – and I have not really systematically researched it – while the book is very highly regarded, the philosophy is yet to become the cornerstone of any nations struggle with justice, power and the engagement of all people with the progress of the nation. I suspect there is a very good reason for that, and I will now address that reason.

Take for example, a difficult and contentious piece of possible legislation, say euthanasia. Now, ask yourself is it possible that somewhere in society there is a person who is terminally ill, it is conceded by all that there is no hope, the person is not able to move, they are not on life support, but are bed ridden, their life is no more than an undignified living caricature of life, a hell from which they have no escape. Imagine the worst possible circumstances, and the best possible argument for euthanasia, but it only applies to one person, and one person only, and that there seems little likelihood of another case in anything like the foreseeable future. Under utilitarian arguments the case is readily resolved, the greatest number are morally opposed, decision is no such legislation greatest good is served. Everybody, except the person and those who support them, is satisfied, and feels morally justified.

The alternative view of social justice developed by Professor Rawls results in a very different position, at least under my interpretation of it when I look to make it practical and real. Legislation must not disadvantage anyone, and while it will not necessarily advantage everyone equally, it should not fall adversely on anyone, because if it does, that’s unfair. Now what of our euthanasia case example: if the principle of justice as fairness is applied, then legislation must enable the person to be humanely killed – phrased this way makes it ruthlessly clear what we are discussing here! I step back personally and have to wrestle with this somewhat.

Serious dilemma: do I really want social justice? Do I really want to see our country thrive and go forward? Do I seriously want to see everyone actively involved, committed to our collective progress? Do I really want to unleash humane killing when I do not think we can adequately handle the rights of violence and killing that we now have – police, armed forces, etc?

Current approach to social justice is not working. The best theory of social justice is not being applied, so likely the better theory will lead through to better social consequences, but there will be aspects that I personally have to wrestle with, and will not always agree.

Do I allow my personal moral reservations override my reason and principles of what is clearly the long-term best process?

Justice as fairness does two very critical things, and only by thinking through the application a little did I come to see this clearly. First: there is separation between my immediate moral and ethical views and decisions on what is good and bad law and political policy. My immediate moral and ethical views are replaced by a principle that overrides all others: social fairness is the long-term key to making democracy work. Second: that there is to be no aggregation of ‘good’ and the largest amount called the ‘common good’, or ‘good of society as whole’. The principle is fairness to everyone. And fairness to one person is equal to fairness to the rest of society. So everyone else can agree, but if the policy is unfair to one person, it should not proceed.

This all makes the principle of justice as fairness very difficult, and almost certain to be ignored by politicians, and I hope you can see why I think so, the principle is likely to offend many existing politicians, especially those with high handed views of how we should all live. In New Zealand, the classic, and most complete example is the Greens. Old-fashioned communism was really based on a moral and ethical view of how the world ought to be, how people really should live and act. If you watch carefully, and listen, then the Greens are in same mold, they want us all to live their way, they are not much more than moral authoritarian dictators, and not committed to democracy at all, at least only in as much as it serves their need for power and to tell us all how we should live and how what we do is wrong, inadequate etc. Commitment to democracy is commitment to supporting the person and views I most detest, but while they legal, they remain equal to mine and I will defend their right to be; little evidence for this, perhaps only USA exhibits in at least some of those in power such breadth of understanding of what the future of the world will necessarily become.

While limited self-serving groups hold power, no hope for real social justice: So turn again the wheel, new people, and new slant, with same result. How sad! If the definition of madness is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, then by such definition we all mad. We need steel ourselves, and face the need for better principles that do not always serve our personal needs or wishes, but will serve better to create a society in which we all feel we have that elusive fair go. In the end, only you and I demanding better and more effective social and political processes can achieve the change, and that only by conceiving a society beyond our immediate wishes and wants, giving away some selfishness for the moment to enable more for our children, grand children and beyond.