I’m currently teaching an ethics and public policy course, and for this week we read Kaplow and Shavell’s Fairness vs. Welfare (actually, we read the first 70 pages of the NBER paper that became the much bigger book). Their central claim is that to pick fairness as the dominant principle in policy-making is by definition to make some people worse-off than they were, and that there are numerous cases where the priority on fairness would make literally everyone worse off. An important subtext is that they don’t think “fairness” means anything, except as a poor, error-inducing proxy for “welfare;” the argument is like reading chapter 5 of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism on justice.
The argument is a preference-based one, and it interprets “welfare” broadly – there’s no correcting of preferences here (or apparent awareness of problems with adaptive preferences). They also allow for a “taste for fairness” – i.e., the preference many people feel for a situation they believe is fair. More on that in a minute. It’s a little unclear who their target is, as well: it sounds like Rawls, but of course Rawls is quite clear that his version of rationality is lifted directly from economics. Kant is the only person I can think of who spends a lot of time separating preferences (heteronomous desires) from what reason demands, so he’s as good a target as any. In any case, I want to focus briefly on the claim that fairness-based policies can make everyone worse off.