On Fairness – Mortimer J. Adler

Adler briefly discusses the difference between fairness and justice, equality and inequality, and how various crimes and violations of rights fit in this discussion.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Fairness, consists in treating equals equally and unequals unequally in proportion to their inequality. And that is only one of several principles of justice, by no means the only principle and certainly not the primary one.

If justice consists solely in fairness, murdering someone, committing mayhem, breaching a promise, falsely imprisoning another, enslaving him, libeling him, maliciously deceiving him, and rendering him destitute, would not be unjust, for there is no unfairness in any of these acts. They are all violations of rights, not violations of the precept that equals should be treated equally.

Only when the facts of human equality and inequality in personal respects and in the functions or services that persons perform provide the basis for determining what is just and unjust can justice and injustice be identified with fairness and unfairness.

When, on the contrary, the determination of what is just and unjust rests on the needs and rights inherent in human nature, then justice and injustice are based on what is really good and evil for human beings, not upon their personal equality or inequality or upon the equality and inequality of their performances.

The fact that all human beings, by nature equal, are also equally endowed with natural rights does not make their equality or their equal possession of rights the basis of a just treatment of them. If only two human beings existed, one could be unjust to the other by maliciously deceiving or falsely imprisoning him. That wrongful act can be seen as unjust with out any reference to equality or inequality. It is unjust because it violates a right.

Murder, mayhem, rape, abduction, libel, breach of promise, false imprisonment, enslavement, subjection to despotic power, perjury, theft — these and many other violations of the moral or civil law are all unjust without being in any way unfair. They are all violations of natural or legal rights. That is what their injustice consists in, not unfairness.


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