Handbook of Economics and Ethics
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Handbook of Economics and Ethics

Edited by Jan Peil and Irene van Staveren

The Handbook of Economics and Ethics portrays an understanding of economic methodology in which facts and values, though distinct, are closely interconnected in a variety of ways. From theory building to data collection, and from modelling to policy evaluation, this encyclopaedic Handbook is at the intersection of economics and ethics.
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Chapter 21: Fairness

Tom De Herdt and Ben D’Exelle


Tom De Herdt and Ben D’Exelle ‘Fair’ is something we ask others to be. It is an injunction to act in a particular way. Before we proceed to describe the particularity of this, it is important to acknowledge that the use of fairness arguments in our conversation with others already presupposes a more complicated reading of human behaviour than the homo economicus model would suggest. People do not merely maximize utility given fixed preferences and a set of constraints; others can make them do otherwise. If not, there would be no point in trying to convince a person to do something. To be sure, there is a large literature on fairness that tries to capture the idea’s essence within the standard rational choice paradigm. Though this literature misses a crucial point, it is nevertheless instructive, as it allows us to reach a finer understanding of what people mean by ‘fair behaviour’. Fairness injunctions generate three kinds of questions: what moves people to act fairly? What moves people to injunct others to act fairly? And, what do people mean by fairness? The injunction to act fairly is more ambitious than the injunction to act reasonably and less ambitious than the injunction to act unselfishly. When we expect our dinner from the butcher, the baker and the brewer, we ‘address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages’, says Adam Smith ([1791] 1979, p. 27). When we invoke...

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