Sunday, March 7, 2010

justice and fairness come apart

John Rawls has argued that Justice should be interpreted as "fairness." His work has come to dominate the entire shape of contemporary political philosophy, most of which assumes his framework as a starting point within which to debate the details.

Yet there are many circumstances where justice and fairness seem to come apart. For example, I recently ordered a book from an online bookseller and it arrived in dramatically different condition than I had imagined from the description (although the book was described as "near fine" and no defects listed, the binding was worn down to the cardboard on the spine and significantly chaffed around the cover). So I initiated a return through the online bookseller, although matters still have not been fully resolved.

In cases of a "misdescribed item," the online service's return policy mandates that the buyer is owed a refund for both the cost of the book and the initial shipping, though NOT the return shipping. This differs on the one hand for a book returned at the buyer's discretion, for which cost, but not shipping, will be refunded; and on the other from receipt of the incorrect book, in which case both original and return shipping will be refunded. Now, consider the case I find myself in—what would be the just outcome? Since the seller misdescribed the book, it seems obvious to me that the just outcome would be for him to refund both original and return shipping. However, unlike a case in which the wrong book is delivered, this is not an instance where the bookseller's error is obvious, rather there is possibility here for dispute and disagreement. In the absence of third party intervention, then, the online service's return policy seems fair since the overall loss (shipping back and forth) is split between the disputing parties. Here is a case where justice and fairness come apart.

Consider another example. At the start of the movie Kill Bill, Uma Thurman attacks one of the assassins who 4 years previously had executed her wedding party (including her betrothed and (she thinks) her unborn child). Her target acknowledges

"...You have every right to want to get even."

Yet Thurman clarifies a crucial difference between her intent and just what it would be mean for them to be even:

"Get even? Even Steven? I would have to kill you, go up to [your daughter's] room, kill her, then wait for your husband ... to come home and kill him. That would be even..., that would be about square."

Now, surely Thurman's rampage of revenge is, to some degree, about the extraction of justice from those who have wronged her. Here, evenness in the scales of justice / old testament / eye for an eye sense is contrasted with Thurman's actual, "rational," objective of killing only her former assailant. Is evenness fairness and Thurman's actual objective justice, or vice versa? Either way, the idea of a balanced distribution and the rational response to a violent wrongdoing clearly come apart here.

Apparently, neither the lawyers for online bookdealers, nor Quentin Tarantino, have read their Rawls. Thank God.

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