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Fairness and Fair Shares

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2011

University of


Some moral principles require agents to do more than their fair share of a common task, if others won't do their fair share – each agent's fair share being what she would be required to do if all contributed as they should. This seems to provide a strong basis for objecting to such principles. For it seems unfair to require agents who have already done their fair share to do more, just because other agents won't do their fair share. The philosopher who has written most about this issue, however, Liam Murphy, argues that it is not unfair to do so, at least in the standard sense of that term. In this article, I give Murphy's reasons for saying this, explain why I think he's wrong, and then say a little about why this issue might be important.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 See e.g. Brock, Dan W., ‘Defending Moral Options’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 51 (1991), pp. 909–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 912.

2 See Murphy, Liam, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford, 2000), p. 6Google Scholar.

3 One might of course question the claim that one's fair share of good-promoting is how much good-promoting one would have to do if everyone promoted the good as much as they could. For the purposes of tackling the issue that is the focus of this article, though, we need not do so. For those purposes, the question is whether, granting that claim, it would be unfair to require agents to do more than that if some agents do not promote the good as much as they can. (Murphy argues for the claim in question in Moral Demands, ch. 6.)

4 Moral Demands, p. 90.

5 See also Murphy, Liam, ‘The Demands of Beneficence’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (1993), pp. 267–92Google Scholar, at 283–4. In both places, Murphy attributes this argument to Derek Parfit. Garrett Cullity articulates the same argument in Cullity, Garrett, The Moral Demands of Affluence (Oxford, 2004), p. 241CrossRefGoogle Scholar, n. 10, but does not attempt to assess it.

6 For ease of exposition, I shall sometimes speak of principles as being unfair; this should be taken as shorthand for the claim that such principles require something it is unfair to require.

7 Given the fact that some people are not doing their fair share, that principle requires each agent to do more than their fair share, including those who have not even done their fair share.

8 For Murphy's explanation of what is going on, see Moral Demands, pp. 90–3. He suggests that while principles that require agents to do more than their fair share are not unfair in the standard sense, it is nevertheless ‘defensible’ to call them unfair because the argument for objecting to such principles ‘connects at important points with the idea of fairness’ (93). (In ‘The Demands’, by contrast, Murphy argues without qualification that one cannot say that such principles are unfair.) I argue that one can say that such principles are unfair without the need for any qualification or hedging, and in a perfectly standard sense of the term.

9 In some cases fairness requires treating different agents differently, of course, because of relevant differences in their circumstances. We need not consider such cases here, though.

10 This is merely a summary statement of the relevant principle, of course, but for current purposes it is not necessary to go into the complications and qualifications.

11 Feinberg, Joel, ‘Noncomparative Justice’, The Philosophical Review 83 (1974), pp. 297338CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 300.

12 Again, this is merely a summary statement of the relevant principle, but for current purposes it is not necessary to go into the complications and qualifications.

13 The sense in which more-than-fair-share principles are unfair is also a distributional one, in at least one good sense of that term. For the problem with such principles is that they distribute responsibilities in an unfair way – the fair way being assigning each agent their fair share.

14 Murphy himself says that he does not think much turns on the issue of whether or not one can say that the optimizing principle is unfair because of the fact that it requires agents to do more than their fair share of beneficence (Moral Demands, p. 193). What I go on to say in the main text provides one reason to think that this issue may in fact be very important.

15 He calls this constraint the ‘compliance condition’ (Moral Demands, p. 77).

16 Moral Demands, pp. 127–33.

17 That objection may of course also be decisive when the benefits to others are lower.

18 I say a little more about them in Horton, Keith, ‘International Aid: The Fair Shares Factor’, Social Theory and Practice 30 (2004), pp. 161–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.