Fairness and Equity: Notes 3

Prepared by:

Joseph Malkevitch
Department of Mathematics and Computer Studies
York College (CUNY)
Jamaica, New York 11451



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Issues involving fairness and equity are complex for a variety of reasons:

a. Not everyone agrees on what the words "fairness" and "equity" mean.

(If I have a dictionary of the Romanian language it will not do me much good unless I know a fair amount of Romanian to start with. Otherwise, I have no way to get started!)

b. What is considered fair and equitable differs from country to country and with time.

(In the United States at one time women were unable to vote and slavery was legal. Legal tradition in the US has evolved from English common law; this is not true for the European democracies which have very different traditions. (Much of European law is derived from Roman law. In many European countries cases are heard before judges and a jury of peers is not involved.) In the US there has evolved a doctrine that criticism of public figures is permitted even to the extent that some of the claims made against them need not be true. In England the standards for what is considered slander or libel are very different. Americans can say things about the President which in England, if said about the Queen, would be a cause for legal action.)

Some words/phrases that are commonly used in efforts to define fairness and equity or in discussions of these concepts:

just (justice)
treat in the same way
doing the right thing
according to rule

Yet it is difficult to pin down exact meanings for these terms. It is helpful in understanding the breadth of the issues here to see phrases which use the word "fair," for example, as an adjective.

Fair trial

a. Trial of your peers. (In the military, in the broad sense, this is not done.)

b. Speedy trial.

c. Right to confront your accusers.

d. Right to a lawyer.

e. If you are poor, a lawyer will be appointed for you.

Fair exams

a. The time to complete the questions is reasonable.

b. The questions are based on the material that has been taught.

c. The questions are worded in an unambiguous fashion.

Fair taxes

a. Is a flat tax fair?

b. If taxes are reduced 1% and one's taxable income is $1,000,000 one pays $10,000 less in tax. If one's taxable income is $10, 000 one saves $100.

c. Is it fair to tax rich people at a higher rate than poor people?

d. Should tax be based on "income" or "wealth?"

Fair trade

a. Should tariffs be used to protect a country's farmers or steel manufacturers?

b. How can one prevent "dumping" of steel from other countries on the American market?

c. When should "protectionist" measures be taken with regard to trade?

d. Is out-sourcing "fair?"

Fair exchange

a. Children are known to trade things of unequal economic value.

b. How should objects be assigned values so that we can determine when a fair exchange is being made?

c. When one pays money for a car, should one have the expectation that it "work?" (When is a car a "lemon?")

Fair division

a. Can objects always be "divided" so that all the participants feel they have been fairly treated?

b. How can fair division problems be classified? (Is there a difference between sharing water from a river and sharing a cake, some parts of which have frosting and flowers?

Fair games

a. The rules of some games are arranged so that you are likely to lose money when you play. When you play games at a casino, the casino would not make money if the probability that you would win the game is the same as the probability that the casino would win, unless the casino made its money by having you pay for the right to play the game.

b. A two-player game is fair if over a long period of play equally skilled players are able to win equally often.

c. In chess matches between two players, since it is thought that the player with the white pieces has a slight advantage, each of the players gets to play the white and black pieces equally often.

Fair use

a. If I buy a piece of software, should I be able to make a back-up copy of the software? Should I be allowed to install the software on all of the computers I own? What about the ones that I use at work?

b. If I buy software, is it fair for me to make a copy for my wife? my boyfriend? my cousin? my neighbor?

c. If I buy a book, can I give it to my friend to read?

d. Should teachers have special rights to reproduce print materials for the benefit of their students?

e. When I tape a movie off TV using my VCR, can I charge admission to friends to watch the movie so as to recover the cost of the tape?

Fair representation

a. Is it fair that in the United States Senate the states of California and Alaska have the same number of representatives?

b. Montana is a very large state in area Is it fair that it has only seat in the House of Representatives? (The House of Representatives is fixed by law to have 435 members, but the number of representatives can be changed by an act of Congress. The House briefly had 437 members when Hawaii and Alaska were admitted became states. After the next census, the size of the House returned to 435.) The Constitution specifies that every state must get at least one seat in the House of Representatives

Fair elections

a. Is the Electoral College the fairest way to elect the President of the United States?

b. Is plurality voting the fairest way to choose a winner of an election in a crowed field of candidates? (Think about the recent Governor's recall election in California where there about 100 candidates running!)


1. If you had a fairness problem to solve, whom would you go to get advice about how to solve it?

2. Who are the experts on "fairness?"

3. What is the difference between a "fair procedure" and a "fair outcome?"

a. Can you give examples where a fair procedure is being used and yet the outcome might be judged not to be fair?

b. Can you give an example where an unfair procedure might be used and yet the outcome would be considered fair?