In their book, American Society: How It Really Works, authors Erik Wright and Joel Rogers make the case that when we talk about social injustice most Americans think in terms of some sort of material inequality that might be considered unfair and possibly remedied if our social institutions were different. There are multiple problems with this reduction but it is fair to say that this is a dominant conceptual framework in our culture today. As a result, one of the ways to frame the “fairness” divide is to discuss it in terms of “fair play” versus “fair shares.”
Wright and Rogers explain that in the “fair play” vision, inequalities are fair so long as the rules by which people compete for valued goods are fair. In this framework there are winners and losers. When losers lose, as long as the rules are the same, the first assumption cannot be that they lost because of injustice and that, all things being equal, had they been equal from the start they would not have lost. That is, so long as there is equal opportunity, inequality of results is not a moral problem.
Alternatively, in the “fair share” vision everyone is entitled to a share of the earnings of other individuals as their contribution to society’s resources, sufficient to ensure a dignified, flourishing life for all. By sufficient Wright and Rogers mean “having enough to be able to participate fully in the exercise of rights and liberties, to be able to exercise personal freedom and develop one’s talent.” In the fair-share vision everyone has a human right to good health care, decent housing, adequate nutrition, and so on. Everyone deserves a fair share of society’s resources and “bounty.”
In the affirmation debate, for example, the central related question would be: Does America’s history of racial oppression prohibit African Americans today from getting their fair share of America’s bounty? If American history is taken seriously, then, some argue that only answer to that question is “yes” and, furthermore, affirmative action is the best way to deal with the past and ensure that the racial oppression of the previous history is not allowed to prohibit African-Americans from getting their fair share in the future.
More broadly affirmative action is seen as an essential weapon in the fight against racial oppression. However, those who think in terms of “fair play” are more concerned with whether not African-Americans are treated fairly in a race neutral employment process regardless of how the material inequality exists. What is central to many of our political disagreements are clashes of competing visions of fairness. If we want to advance our policy discussions beyond the rhetoric, we need to make sure we have an understanding of what is at the root of our conflicts.