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Wherein Lays the Virtue of Fairness?

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 09, 2005

Ken Gordon is a decent individual who wants the Principles of Fairness to work. Yet the principles enunciated in the said document cannot be achieved only through goodwill, good intentions, let alone by the sheer pluck and tenacity of even ten Mr. Gordons. Once one deals in principles that are so fundamental, intractable and as slippery as fairness, then the devil, as one says, is in working through its details. In his magisterial works, Wealth of Nations and The Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith recognized that each of us is driven by our own self interest: the "self-interested pursuit of gain" as he outlined in the former and the existence of "selfish propensities" in the latter. In Wealth of Nations, he says: "Every as much more deeply interested in whatever immediately concerns himself, than in what concerns every other man." Such self-interestedness makes it difficult to assume that one can obtain fairness simply by enunciating a few high-minded principles.

More importantly, principles cannot be legislated from on high or imposed on others by fiat, no matter how well-intended the proponents of such principles may be. Principles of Fairness imply a democratic process in which all of the participants, through discourse, discussion and practice arrive at what constitutes fairness in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. In this context, fairness cannot be presumed to be self-evident.

In his letter to the Express (August 8), Mr. Gordon advances what he considers the significant achievements of his Principles: the endorsement of the kingmakers-the politicians and the Chamber of Commerce-the blessings of the Inter Religious Organizations---the musical composition of the Mighty Sparrow-and a "Curriculum of Fairness" that is being developed. Mr. Gordon considers those achievements "gratifying progress." Yet, how much of these achievements have come about as a result of a democratic consensus of all of the signatories is difficult to know. As someone who has participated in the making of curricula (I contributed to Harvard University's Core Curriculum that became a model for United States universities during the last thirty years of the twentieth century) I am not too sure that Mr. Gordon is really aware of the amount of time and discussion it takes to construct such a curriculum. Suffice it to say, that more democratic participation as well as an understanding of our history over the last two hundred years is needed before one can develop a curriculum of fairness for our schools.

If Mr. Gordon and his committee wish to achieve fairness in T&T they must begin with the premise that they are dealing with intelligent persons who possess various and varying capacities. There cannot be a notion that there are those who instinctively understand what fairness means and those who are too boorish to understand the concept; nor can there be the absurd notion that there are "violators" and "upholders" of those principles? The interests of Arthur Lok Jack and Tajmool Hosein are not the same as those of Jennifer Baptiste-Primus and yours truly. We see the world from different perspectives and have different notions of what constitutes fairness. The most we can hope to achieve is a harmonious coming together and an agreement on some rules of conduct that are mutually beneficial to all the parties concerned. It is not likely that a common worker can be unjust to Mr. Loc Jack, one of the wealthiest men in the country. As we know, wealth brings with it power and introduces relationships of authority and subordination.

Therefore, when Ms. Baptiste-Primus says that she wishes to take back the country from the Syrians she is also saying that the interests of some Syrians and members of that class are different from those who find themselves trying to make two ends meet. It is not so much that she is asking for the elimination of a people as she is pleading for a form of distributive justice.

In this, Ms. Primus is not as loco as the various Chambers members and newspaper editorials (see Trinidad Guardian and Newsday, August 1) make her out to be. In A Theory of Justice John Rawls offers the following formulation of what he considers the necessary prerequisite for fairness. He says "that a person's obligations and duties presuppose a moral conception of institutions and therefore that the content of just institutions must be defined before the requirements for individuals can be set out." He argues further: "By the principle of fairness it is not possible to be bound to unjust institutions, or at least to institutions which exceed the limits of tolerable injustice...In particular, it is not possible to have an obligation to autocratic and arbitrary forms of government. The necessary background does not exist for obligations to arise from consensual or other acts. Obligatory ties presuppose just institutions, or ones reasonably just in view of the circumstances."

To subscribe to the "Principles of Fairness" does not mean that one should forget one's location in society and simply go ahead with the privileged few who feel little compassion for those who are not as well connected as they are. It only means that we are committed to certain reasonable humanitarian principles that we believe can lead to a more just society in theory and in practice.

In an attempt to get to the sources of fairness and justice, Smith asked: first, "by what means does it come to pass that the mind prefers one tenor of conduct to another?" and second: "Wherein does virtue consist, or what is the tone and tenor of conduct which constitutes the excellent or praiseworthy character?"

This is the spirit of inquiry that should inform our attempt to construct a society based on the tenets Mr. Gordon and his colleagues have outlined. It does not commit anyone to follow blindly any moral configuration that suggests superior or inferior notions of fairness. It suggests a process of sympathy, imagination, reason and reflection that allows us to construct what Mr. Gordon considers a "NEW WAY OF LIFE" for our society.

I remain committed to the sentiments enshrined in the Principles of Fairness and intend to do all I can to achieve this goals contained therein.

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