Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thinking out loud: Fairness and Ethics

A close friend of mine sent me this interesting Planet Money article the other day

The Fall And Rise Of U.S. Inequality, In 2 Graphs

I don't see why they needed 2 graphs, because they seemed pretty redundant to me. Either way, here's the graph:

It's a really nice way of showing the income inequality in the US, and how's it's changed over time. The take home point is that the richest 1% have seen a huge increase in their income while the middle class has been more or less stagnant for the last 20-30 years.

We talked about this for awhile, but I kept coming back to a question that I come around to in most discussions:

Is this bad? 

This is so tricky for me to answer. I have the gut reaction that most people probably have, and I say to myself "that's not fair!" But then I ask myself, "So what? Life's not fair."

In my discussion with my friend, I realized that this is a topic in which we have vastly different opinions. His approach to determining whether something is ethical often involves asking how fair it is. The more fair it is, the better. And less fair things are bad things.

I find it better to detach myself from questions of fairness in this instance, since my opinion of fairness comes from an emotional reaction, which is often very irrational.

However, I'm sort of a hypocrite, because I think questions of fairness have a place in many other issues. Here's a few of them where I think fairness is really important:

  • The gender pay gap
  • Racial profiling by police
  • Mass incarceration of minor crimes with mandatory minimum sentences

But can I have it both ways? Can fairness be important some times and not others?

I'm not sure that I have an answer to that question yet.


  1. I personally believe that there are only two times in life when we're all equal..... At birth, and at death. The rest of the time it is up to us to make our own "Equality"..... that is, what we can achieve is limited only by how hard you are willing to work.

  2. Interesting viewpoint Garr, thanks for sharing!