Benchmark Ethics: Fairness and Justice: Who cares?

If there is any one, single ethical value that has been on everyone’s short list, in virtually all times and places, it would be justice. But, what is justice? And, does anybody care anymore? We certainly care about our freedom. Any proposed restrictions on our freedom will arouse a furor in an instant. We care about profits, power, success, and other things, but does anybody care about justice in the board rooms, strategy sessions, and research laboratories of our high tech, global business world?

In one definition, justice means “law-abiding,” but laws (e.g., permitting slavery) are themselves not always “just” so that definition is not enough. As an ethical value above the law, justice usually means something like “fairness and equality.” Caring about justice means caring about fairness and equality.

One of the two basic domains here is remedial justice — determining fair responses to attacks like theft, slander, and violence, or violations of contracts and agreements. Remedial justice arises in today’s business and technology context when we consider responsibility and punishment for environmental damage, hacking and data theft, industrial espionage, unfair monopolistic business practices, and so on.

A second domain, distributive justice, is probably even more important than remedial justice over the long haul. Distributive justice concerns the fairness of how honors, political rights and responsibilities, economic opportunities, material goods, and so on, are divided up among the people.

There are vast differences between the success of one company and a competitor, one executive and another, and more broadly, between rich and poor in our world. What makes such differences in wealth and success right? Such differences are certainly not always “just.” Dictators, thieves, and crooks have often acquired power and wealth unjustly. Might does not make right. Just because we have the power to do something doesn’t make it right. Can does not mean ought.

A basic component of true justice is “proportionality.” Justice and fairness require that people be rewarded in proportion to their contribution — the amount and quality of their work, the ideas they contribute, the responsibility they bear, and so on. It is unjust and unfair to take all profit for yourself if others have contributed to your success. Distributive justice is proportional.

Most of our moral leaders throughout history would argue, however, that justice is not just proportional to what you do but is also based on what you are. People have an inherent dignity and worth we must respect and protect. At some basic level, every human being has a right to life, no matter how weak or unproductive they may be. No matter how much we may be able to take we must not do so at the expense of those who do not have the strength, opportunity, or wisdom to take for themselves as we do. This is not just compassion, it is justice. It is not just charity but human rights.

Our era has a hard time thinking this way because we value measurable results above all else, it seems. If we really buy into the concept that only those who produce have rights, we are creating a very cynical and inhumane world. Who will stand up for human justice in today’s business climate? The Seattle and Washington protestors against the WTO and globalization must not be the only voice for justice, fairness, equality, human rights, and environmental responsibility.

I recently came across some good news from The Communitarian Network of Amitai Etzioni and friends — a movement I greatly admire, but from which I did not expect to find positive news about the impact of globalization and technology. In the Spring 2000 issue of The Responsive Community, Robert Z. Lawrence describes “Inequality in America: The Recent Evidence.” From some comparative statistics on income and employment he argues that trends toward greater inequality through the 1980s and early 1990s have been arrested, if not reversed, during the last five years.

Globalization and technology, which initially seemed to be producing greater inequalities may now have become, at least indirectly, forces for greater equality. But, even though we have made progress, we should not be complacent: we have a long way to go. Market forces can always turn around. And even now people are still dying of starvation at the doors of the global economy.

For discussion with your colleagues, here are two proposed criteria of organizational as well as global justice: First, any inequalities of income or wealth should be, in some demonstrable way, proportional to contribution (work, genius, courage, etc.), not just arbitrary or (worst of all) imposed by force. Second, such inequalities must never come at the expense of anybody’s basic survival; we must not allow the bottom of our economic range to sink below a minimal survivability level.

Do you agree with these two criteria of justice? How would a greater concern for justice and fairness affect policies and decisions where you work and lead?

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.