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Today, Will Hutton gave a talk at the RSA on his new book, which is on the topic of fairness. Will argued that there are two kinds of fairness, egalitarian (fairness means everyone having their fair share) and libertarian (fairness means everyone getting what they deserve). Furthermore, he argued that during our lives we all have times where we subscribe to one or the other definition.

“Fairness” has assumed a prominent place in our politicians’ lexicon. If Raymond Williams was writing Keywords today he would surely include it. Part of the reason that “fairness” holds this place is that the public largely think that fairness and security are very worthwhile things, and our politicians are well aware of this. They are also aware that “fairness” like any other term, is elastic, and can mean different things, in different contexts, to different people.

Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one

In his talk Will Hutton tried to bring together the two meanings of fairness which he had identified. It reminded me of a brilliant passage in Philosophical Investigations by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein;

“One might say that the concept 'game' is a concept with blurred edges”

"But is a blurred concept a concept at all?”

“Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn't the indistinct one often exactly what we need?”

The constant desire to reconcile, to make net, to unify or reconcile is felt very strongly by people of a certain disposition. There is a lot to be said for this disposition but there are also times when we need indistinct pictures, such as when we are describing indistinct things.

In Connected Communities we struggle with these questions constantly. When we are mapping human relationships, we are mapping subtle, shifting things. Anything which looks too clear is in danger of looking pat and unrealistic; anything which looks too chaotic becomes impenetrable.

I think Will’s triangulation of the concept of fairness is an interesting approach, but somehow it struck me as too clinical to really resonate.


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