Students will complete a series of short essays about the idea of fairness in different ethical theories. Students will reflect in writing on the following question: what is fairness or how does this idea contribute to, support or challenge my idea of fairness? Another question students will consider is how a particular ethical theory is or is not fair. Students will be evaluated on the following factors:
- Did the student make a serious attempt to craft a response to the question?
- Does the response address the question in a focused and substantial way?
- Are there references to the readings in each entry?
- Is there evidence of intellectual growth and development of ideas in each subsequent entry?
Rules for submissions:
Sample student work:
- Students are required to complete the required number of entries; do not combine entries
- Entries must be entered in the correct text box; students may upload files as an attachment, but that cannot be the sole effort at submission (keep a backup of your journal entries on your computer)
- For late or missing entries, students must provide proof that the journal entry was completed by the due date or no credit will be awarded
Fairness is fulfilling the duty for every person to give or receive opportunities towards life, procreation, sociability, and gaining knowledge, and be provided a system of distribution of those opportunities based off of need (ability, availability of resources, gender, economic status, etc.) which would give more or less of that opportunity, in which they can take advantage of in any manner they so choose, within reason, to allow them to grow as an individual. This was my previous definition of fairness, but after broadening my understanding of ethical egoism and utilitarianism, I can think of fairness with a slight difference.
Both ethical egoism and utilitarianism base moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness on the consequence of an action, but the subject(s) that receives the benefit of the consequence that makes the action praiseworthy is the dividing aspect of the two theories. In ethical egoism, the person performing the action should always act to achieve the greatest good for themselves, no one else. In utilitarianism, the person performing the action should always act to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if they aren’t included in that majority. I believe there is a degree of fairness in utilitarianism, but ethical egoism is not fair.
When comparing the fairness of ethical egoism and utilitarianism, I thought of the story of the man who operated a bridge for a train. His son would play on the train tracks when the bridge was up, but one day he gets a call that a train is coming in fast and he needed to but the bridge down immediately. If he put the bridge down, all of the passengers would be safe, but his son would be killed. If he left the bridge up, his son would live, but the train would crash and potentially kill all of the passengers. I think this commonly told story presents a battle between ethical egoism and utilitarianism. Ethical egoism would praise the consequence benefiting the agent, which would be to keep the bridge up so that his son lives. Mill talks about how we know our interests better than anyone, and we have a duty to ourselves to promote our own interests. In this scenario, the man’s son was his interest; therefore preserving his son’s life would be the greatest good to himself. But is it fair to take the lives of several people to spare oneself the pain of losing a child? I do not think so. I think that majority matters in fairness. If the consequence is more people are benefited from an action, then that is the praiseworthy consequence; therefore that should be the action taken. But it is just selfish to benefit yourself without thought to how the consequences of an action will affect others; this would be taking away someone else’s opportunities and freedom to act off of their interests. Utilitarianism would praise the man if he let the bridge down, killing his son to save the train of passengers. I think this is fair because even though he has taken away the opportunities and freedoms of one human, he has preserved the opportunities and freedoms of many more humans. I think fairness has much to do with not being selfish, because there cannot be any equity if we are all focused on our own interests and ourselves.
Fairness is unselfishly fulfilling the duty for every person to give or receive opportunities promoting life, procreation, sociability, and gaining knowledge, and be provided a system of distribution of those opportunities based off of need (ability, availability of resources, gender, economic status, etc.) which would give more or less of that opportunity, in which they can take advantage of in any manner they so choose, within reason, to allow them to grow as an individual.
At the end of the semester, students are asked to complete the following exam question:
In an essay of 4-5 pages, discuss the idea of fairness in ethics. Define and give examples of fairness. Explain with reasoned argument which ethical theory is the most fair and which is the most unfair. Apply your definition of fairness to one or more of the social issues covered this semester. What is a fair solution and what makes it fairer than other solutions? Conclude your essay by assessing the worth of fairness at the primary criteria for moral and ethical decision making.
Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar presentation, Course Design Strategies to Enhance Critical Thinking Skills, 2015.