I remember being a child, and thinking that so many things were unfair. I remember specifically being at a birthday party at about the age of nine or ten, and noting that the party host was cutting the cake in dramatically different sizes, and each of the children had a differently sized piece of cake. This seemed fundamentally unfair to me. I thought it was only right and fair to determine that each child had exactly the same amount of delicious cake. This theory did not take into account personal tastes, and in the day in question I received a second piece of cake and someone did not like theirs. In my early ethical philosophy everyone got the same size and type of cake, whether they wanted or needed it or not.
As I got older, I began to realize that there is no one way of describing or determining fairness. What is a priority for one person is not a priority for the other. The command style economy of the Soviet Union was based on always determining a fair allocation; this was the system that I dreamed about as a kid, the perfect fairness! Every child would get a piece of cake exactly the same size! It is clear, decades after the fall of that empire; that this system did not take into account subjective priorities; and it did not have the capacity to make the economy or fairness more efficient. In fact, most in the Soviet Union ended up with scarcity as a result (Matthews, 1986).

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Clearly my ethical beliefs and my prime directive of fairness have changed since I was a child. I understand that fairness has many facets, including following the rules that one has set, communicating problems and taking into account subjective individual differences in interests as well as shared goals. Fairness does not come about as a result of measurement and allocation, but rather by taking into account a number of contingent factors. Most importantly, I have grown to understand that fairness is constructed by agreement between the parties involved, and it is not always possible to achieve a “perfect” fairness.

  • Matthews, M. (1986). Poverty in the Soviet Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.