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A Magazine for Sheffield

Fairness: What is Fair?

For politicians, promising to make things "fairer" is the new baby kissing. You wonder what the alternative is. "Vote me and I'll make your life a misery", or, "Vote me and I'll make it rubbish for everyone but my mates". Well, it might be more honest, but instead politicians like to tell us they care about being fair. All this banging on about fairness hints that something out there isn't fair. My three year old thinks anything less than ten books before bedtime is not fair. Less than a kilo of raisins on breakfast is not fair. We need some decider of fairness, some objective moral guide that preferably doesn't rely on Jeremy Kyle. Britain has a proud history of philosophical chin stroking on the subject. One of those chins belonged to Jeremy Bentham, who decided against becoming a chat show host and instead became a philosopher. Jeremy Bentham supported utilitarianism, which suggests that fair is what provides the greatest average happiness. That principle is good for the majority of people. The problem with averages is that things can still be unfair for some. The majority might be deliciously happy because the minority get cooked up for them in a big pie. What is needed is for the rules to apply equally to everybody. We could go back to Jesus, who said, "Do unto others as you would have done unto you". That's great for preventing minority pie, but assumes that what is good for you is good for others. If my legs got burnt off by lightning and people kept insisting I use the stairs because "that's what they would do", then I might get a bit tetchy. For the Jesus rule to work we need some understanding of what challenges people face, or as Harper Lee put it, "You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Only problem is, we're rubbish at it. A population that was brimming with empathy would be far less likely to go for the partisan bilge that bores out of pub conversations or party politics. As it is, we're always hard done by and we love a bit of "they are getting a better deal than us". It's three year old fairness writ large. Fairness is a bit tricky then. But that hasn't stopped the council setting up a Fairness Commission with the aim of making Sheffield a fairer place. Fairness commissions are springing up all over the place. They suggest things that the council or businesses could do to make the lives of the hard done by better. In Islington they are exploring by-laws to prevent loan sharks operating and asking shop owners if they could let the space above their shops to reduce pressure on housing. In York they are pushing for more equal pay and proposing all-day cut-price travel for the disabled. A fairness commission is set up by the local council, who then invite the great and the good to ponder tales of injustice from community representatives, monobrowed academics and the public. Their wisdom is distilled into a multi-point plan: a mix of council policy changes, cross sector working groups, sputtering initiatives and blue sky aspirations. All this will not change the world. It will offer a chance to do some stuff better. But wait a second, we haven't worked out what "fair" is yet. Fairness was fine when things would be fairer for me. For proper fairness we need to understand the lives and challenges of others, to get in their skin and walk around a bit. And not in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way. In fact, pretty much the opposite. To achieve fairness we need to accept that our own lives might be relatively comfortable. What we want, be it a new DVD or a pound of human flesh, might have to wait a while. If you need a carer to get through the day, maybe having my bin emptied every week isn't so important. If you can cope with paying a bit more in council tax, my nana can get insulation on her house so she doesn't freeze to death. Sheffield Fairness Commission is inviting people to share the challenges they face in their lives and explore how stuff could be changed to make those lives easier and happier. Sharing those stories can be part of a wider conversation about what "fair" really is. You can submit evidence to the Sheffield Fairness Commission and attend public meetings. )

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