What is Fairness

In his 1990 article “Fairness”, John Broome distinguishes between two moral concepts. On the one hand, goodness. On the other hand, fairness. He says that what’s fair is not always good, and what’s good is not always fair. Therefore, goodness can require a different choice than fairness does.

Example – “Kidney”
To illustrate this difference between goodness and fairness Broome uses an example. Imagine there is only one kidney available for transplantation and that both Ann and Bob need that kidney urgently. Without the kidney, they cannot survive. However, there is only one relevant difference between them. If Ann gets the kidney she lives another 22 years. If Bob gets it, he will live another 20 years. All else is equal. Broome’s question is: How to divide the kidney?

If we assume that life is a good thing, then 22 years of life is better than 20. There is more goodness in giving the kidney to Ann than to Bob. So we should give the kidney to Ann according to goodness.

The different options are presented in the following table.

Ann (+22 Years) Bob (+20 Years)
Goodness Image of V Image of X

According to Broome, Fairness requires that equal claims receive equal satisfaction. The fact that both Ann and Bob need the kidney to survive, gives them an equal claim to the kidney. So by giving the kidney to Ann, we fail to respect Bob’s claim, which is unfair to Bob. Similarly, of course, giving the kidney to Bob is unfair to Ann. So according to fairness none of them should get the Kidney.

  Ann (+22 Years) Bob (+20 Years)
Goodness Image of V Image of X
Fairness Image of X Image of X

Destroying the kidney?
What is the best action according to fairness, then? We saw that it is unfair to give the kidney to Ann or Bob. However, destroying it ensures that the equal claims of Ann and Bob receive the same treatment, namely no satisfaction and hence is perfectly fair. So according to fairness, the fairest thing to do would actually be to destroy the kidney. But, of course, destroying it is also very bad according to goodness, as it ensures that two persons die.

Ann (+22 Years) Bob (+20 Years) Destroying the kidney 
Goodness Image of V Image of X Image of X
Fairness Image of X Image of X Image of V

Coin Flip
Can there be a “middle way” here? Broome says that we should flip a coin in order to decide who gets the kidney. The coin flip gives Ann and Bob an equal chance to the kidney. This is a way to respect their equal claims, which at least yields some fairness. And it also respects goodness to the extent that one life is saved. So, according to Broome, letting a coin to decide is the right compromise between the best good action (which is giving the kidney to Ann) and the fairest action (which is destroying the kidney). In general, chance procedures like flipping a coin can help us to strike a balance between goodness and fairness.

Ann Bob Destroying The Kidney Coin Flip
Goodness Image of V Image of X Image of X Compromise Image
Fairness Image of X Image of X Image of V Compromise Image