Home » Julian Burnside: What is Fair and What is Just? at TEDxSydney (Full Transcript)

Julian Burnside: What is Fair and What is Just? at TEDxSydney (Full Transcript)

Sharing is Kindness in Action!

Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside – TRANSCRIPT

I don’t know what to say, thank you for that, or not. Probably not.

I want to talk about fairness. Fairness is a very profound human instinct. Children understand fairness from a very early age. Actually, they understand unfairness. Fairness is what is left over when unfairness is got rid of, and everyone understands that.

But although we’re very sensitive to unfairness when it affects us, we have an astonishing capacity for tolerating unfairness that affects other people. It’s easy to overlook the fact that just over 100 years ago, men argued sincerely that women should not be allowed to vote. It’s easy to overlook the fact that up to about 150 years ago, women in Britain were not allowed to own real estate.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that until the early 19th century, people sincerely argued that the maintenance of the slave trade was essential for the economic survival of Britain. It’s easy to overlook some of the appalling things that happened as a result of people’s capacity to tolerate unfairness. In the late 18th century, a ship called the Zorg set out from the west coast of Africa, headed for Jamaica, with a cargo of slaves on board.

But it got becalmed, and disease broke out, and the water supply looked as that might not be enough for the balance of the voyage, so Captain Collingwood took 133 living slaves and threw them overboard to make sure that they could make the rest of the journey.

Now, not surprisingly, this ended up in court in London not, as you might think, on a charge of mass murder, but on an insurance claim for the value of the lost slaves. I would hope that things like that couldn’t happen these days, although sometimes it’s not easy to be confident.

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Now, justice is closely aligned to fairness, although it is also somewhat elusive in the way that it is applied. Justice is something we all value in the same way that we value fairness, but I wonder how much we understand it. Try this thought experiment: imagine that it’s the last day of school holidays, mom has had a pretty difficult time, the kids have been ratty all day, she’s in the kitchen preparing dinner, and she hears a crush in the living room. She rushes in, the kids have disappeared, but her best, most valuable, most precious vase is smashed to bits on the half.

Scenario 1: She knows with the certainty that mothers have that it was the boy who did it. She finds him, punishes him, and sends him to bed without dinner. As it happened, he did do it.

Scenario 2: Having done an undergraduate degree in law, she decides that she should try and discover the facts, so she goes, and she asks each of the children in turn for their version of events. She puts all the evidence together as carefully and analytically as she can, utterly dispassionate about it, comes to the conclusion it was the boy who did it, she finds him, punishes him, and sends him to bed without dinner.

As it happens, he didn’t do it. Now, which of those scenarios is closer to your conception of justice? Most people can’t answer that question quickly, and that tells you the ambiguity of justice. Justice is very important, of course, and especially it’s important when it is marred by injustice. The justice system inevitably creates pockets of unfairness, but we think that it’s OK because the justice system is calculated to produce the right results more often than not, and we tolerate cases of unfairness because the system itself is worth it. That is OK, as long as you are not the one who pays the price. If you’re the one who gets a dead result, then you will feel the sting of unfairness more sharply because no one else is prepared to understand why you’re complaining.

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Now, justice in society is an even larger and more difficult problem. John Rawls, the American philosopher, came up with a spectacular theory for a just society. Summarizing, it was that a just society would provide for an equal distribution of the opportunity for all the goods that society has to offer; on terms of equal opportunity for everyone, but in cases of starting disadvantage, you could compensate for them in what we would call affirmative action. And this, he said, would provide a just society.

The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit posed a fascinating and important question. He said if you have a society which is just in Rawlsian terms, is it possible for that society to tolerate the existence of humiliating institutions? Now, of course, the first thing is to say, “Well, what does he mean by that?” He meant it really literally, and he gives an example. He gives the example of a community in some country where the community is of 100 people, they are all starving, they all need some rice, and there is a truck that comes in with 100 bags of rice. Each person should get one bag of rice, and that would produce a just Rawlsian distribution.

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