Understanding Fairness/struggles for fairness

Struggles for FairnessEdit

Various struggles for fairness are described below. Choose from these, or your own experiences, for the assignments in this course. Each of these topics links to more detailed information which can help you better understand each issue in more depth.

This list is heavily oriented toward issues in the United States. Feel free to choose issues relevant to your own country of interest.

University Admissions Policy and Affirmative Action.Edit

The US Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, considered the plea of plaintiffs Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz who applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and were denied admission. The two women, both white, filed suit, alleging that the University had discriminated against them on the basis of their race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The University of Texas at Austin accepts students in the top 10% of each Texas high school's graduating class, regardless of their race; under Texas House Bill 588, 81% of 2008's freshman class were admitted under the plan.

Applicants, who, like Fisher, fail to graduate in the top 10% of their high schools, can still gain admission by scoring highly in a process that evaluates their talents, leadership qualities, family circumstances, and race, but Fisher was not awarded one of these remaining slots in the class. She then filed a lawsuit challenging the policies used by the university to fill those slots. In the years leading up to the Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University had relied on academic performance and a personal achievement measure that considers the quality of two essays and a list of factors like leadership, community service, work experience, and family status. However, after the Court’s decision in Grutter, the university added race to the personal achievement measures, making the admissions process for the remaining nineteen percent of the class a race-conscious plan. Fisher’s lawsuit alleges that this additional affirmative action plan violates the Fourteenth Amendment and injures her by excluding her and allowing others with weaker academic records to be admitted instead.[1]

Did the University of Texas at Austin treat plaintiffs Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz fairly? Why or why not?

Allocating Donated Organs to Transplant RecipientsEdit

As of 2011, about 90,000 people were reported to be waiting for a new organ. On average, an individual will wait three and a half years for an organ to become available for transplant.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) in the United States.

UNOS uses a set policy to reduce subjectivity from the process of matching organs with recipients (referred to as a "match run".) There are several factors that are involved.

Is the allocation policy used by the UNOS fair? Why or why not?

Organ trade is the trade of human organs for the purpose of transplantation. There is a worldwide shortage of organs available for transplantation, yet commercial trade in human organs was at one point illegal in all countries except Iran. The legal status of organ trade, however, is changing around the world. For example, in 2013, both Australia and Singapore legalized financial compensation for living organ donors.

Illegal organ trafficking is widespread, but data on the extent of the black market is difficult to obtain. The question of whether to legalize the organ trade to combat illegal trafficking and organ shortage is hotly debated.

Are the current processes for allocating donor organs to patients fair? Can you suggest specific changes that can make allocation of donor organs to needy patient fairer?

Reparations for Slavery in the United StatesEdit

Reparations for slavery are a variety of proposals that some type of compensation be provided to the descendants of enslaved people in the United States, in consideration of the coerced and uncompensated labor their ancestors performed over centuries. This compensation has been proposed in a variety of forms, from individual monetary payments to land-based compensation schemes related to independence. The idea remains highly controversial and no broad consensus exists as to how it could be implemented.

The feature article "The Case for Reparations"[2] by Ta-Nehisi Coates published in The Atlantic June 2014 renewed and intensified dialogue on the topic.

Should such reparations be paid? Why or why not? What is the fairest solution? What system of reparations, including specific proposal for who pays, how much is paid, who receives payment, and the time frame for payments can you propose that would be most fair?

Should Heavier Passengers Pay More to Fly?Edit

Heavier airplane loads required more jet fuel, and therefore incur more costs. Consider the arguments made by Peter Singer in this March 12, 2012 article Weigh More, Pay More.[3] Because heavier passengers are more costly, is it fairer to charge heavier passengers more to fly than lighter weight passengers? Why or why not?

Net NeutralityEdit

Net neutrality (also called network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. The concept is interpreted and proposed in various forms, and continues to be debated. What, if any, forms of net neutrality are fair to the users, carriers, and content providers? Why?

Bargains for New CustomersEdit

Various service providers, including internet service providers, cell phone carriers, banks, and others sometimes make attractive offers to new customers that are not available to current customers. These may be offered in the form of an introductory rate, or better service for the next few years. Study one such specific offer in depth. Is this fair or unfair? Why or why not?

Gender Pay GapEdit

The gender pay gap in the United States is the ratio of female to male median yearly earnings among full-time, year-round (FTYR) workers.

In 2013 the median weekly income of full-time workers was $860 for men, compared to $706 for women. The female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.82, slightly higher than the 2010 ratio The female-to-male earnings ratio of 0.82 means that, in 2013, the average female FTYR worker earned 18% less than the average male FTYR worker. The statistic does not take into account differences in experience, skill, occupation, education or hours worked, as long as it qualifies as full-time work. Some portion of the wage gap is attributed by some to gender discrimination in the United States.

Any given raw wage gap can be decomposed into an explained part, due to differences in characteristics such as education, hours worked, work experience, and occupation, and an unexplained part, which is typically attributed to discrimination. But, this can be further explained when you take into account that men are far more likely to negotiate for higher pay. Researchers say women who do request either a raise or a higher starting salary are more likely than men to be penalized for those actions. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon, while negotiating for pay, 83% of men instead of only 58% of women negotiated for a higher wage. The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee shows that "as explained inequities decrease, the unexplained pay gap remains unchanged. Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn stated that while the overall size of the wage gap has decreased somewhat over time, the proportion of the gap that is unexplained by human capital variables is increasing.

Is the gender pay gap fair? Why or why not?

Establishing Electoral DistrictsEdit

Redistricting is the process of drawing United States electoral district boundaries.

Each state has its own standards for creating Congressional and legislative districts. In addition to equalizing the population of districts and complying with Federal requirements, criteria may include attempting to create compact, contiguous districts, trying to keep political units and communities within a single district, and avoiding the drawing of boundaries for purposes of partisan advantage or incumbent protection.

In the states where the legislature (or another body where a partisan majority is possible) is in charge of redistricting, the possibility of gerrymandering (the deliberate manipulation of political boundaries for electoral advantage, usually of incumbents or a specific political party) often makes the process very politically contentious, especially when the majorities of the two houses of the legislature, or the legislature and the governor, are from different parties.

Allegations of unfair redistricting can reach the Supreme Court, as in the case of Shaw v. Reno, argued on April 20, 1993 to consider redistricting and racial gerrymandering. The difficult case of Baker v. Carr determined in 1962 that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to rule in redistricting disputes.

Are United States electoral district boundaries drawn fairly? Why or why not?

Water Rights in the United StatesEdit

The United States recognizes two types of water rights. Although use and overlap varies over time and by state, the western arid states generally follow the doctrine of prior appropriation, while water rights for the eastern states follow riparian law.

Prior appropriation water rights is the legal doctrine that the first person to take a quantity of water from a water source for "beneficial use"—agricultural, industrial or household—has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. Subsequent users can take the remaining water for their own beneficial use provided that they do not impinge on the rights of previous users.

Under the riparian principle, all landowners whose property adjoins a body of water have the right to make reasonable use of it as it flows through or over their property. If there is not enough water to satisfy all users, allotments are generally fixed in proportion to frontage on the water source. These rights cannot be sold or transferred other than with the adjoining land and only in reasonable quantities associated with that land. The water cannot be transferred out of the watershed without due consideration as to the rights of the downstream riparian landowners.

Which type of water rights, prior appropriation or riparian law is the more fair? Why? Can you propose an allocation rule that is more fair than these? What is that rule and why is it more fair?

Statute of limitationsEdit

Statutes of limitations are laws passed by a legislative body in common law systems to set the maximum time after an event when legal proceedings may be initiated. When the period of time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim can no longer be filed. The intention of these laws is to facilitate resolution in a reasonable length of time. The cause of action dictates the statute of limitations, which can be reduced (or extended) to ensure a fair trial. When a statute of limitations expires in a criminal case, the courts no longer have jurisdiction.

Are statutes of limitations fair? Why or why not? Can you propose a system that would be more fair?

Land OwnershipEdit

Land ownership claims often originate from conquest.[4] The Bureau of land management administers more than 247.3 million acres of public lands in the United States which constitutes one-eighth of the landmass of the country. Protests over government land control, such as the Sagebrush rebellion, are supported by those who believe current policies are unfair. Land runs have been used to assign land ownership. A land grant is a gift of real estate – land or its privileges – made by a government or other authority as a reward for services to an individual, especially in return for military service.

Benefits of land ownership are often key factors separating the wealthy from the poor, and sustaining that separation: "land tenure is the fundamental fact that ultimately determines the conditions of industrial, social, and political life".[5]

Is private ownership of land fair? Why or why not?

Alaska Permanent FundEdit

The Alaska Permanent Fund sets aside a certain share of oil revenues to continue benefiting current and all future generations of Alaskans. It is a constitutionally established permanent fund managed by a state-owned corporation, the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation (APFC). The Permanent Fund was created by an amendment to the Alaska Constitution. It was designed to be an investment where at least 25% of the oil money would be put into a dedicated fund for future generations, who would no longer have oil as a resource.

Is it fair to create the Alaska Permanent Fund? Is its method used to distribute the funds fair? Are the funds distributed fairly? Why or why not?

September 11th Victim Compensation FundEdit

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was created by an Act of Congress, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act, shortly after 9/11 to compensate the victims of the attack (or their families) in exchange for their agreement not to sue the airline corporations involved. Kenneth Feinberg was appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft to be Special Master of the fund. He worked for 33 months pro bono. He developed the regulations governing the administration of the fund and administered all aspects of the program. Legislation authorizes the fund to disburse a maximum of $7.375 billion, including operational and administrative costs, of U.S. government funds.

Other Disbursements Overseen by Kenneth FeinbergEdit

Kenneth Feinberg has overseen disbursements from several other funds, listed and described here.

Prison EducationEdit

Prison education is any educational activity that occurs inside prison. Courses can include basic literacy programs, secondary school equivalency programs, vocational education and tertiary education.

Studies consistently show that education in prison is an effective way of reducing the rates of recidivism, which saves the expense of future prison sentences. In the UK, it is estimated that every pound spent on prison education saves taxpayers more than two pounds, and in the US, the rate is four to five dollars saved for every dollar spent. Despite the known benefits of prison education programs, rates of education within prisons remain low in many countries and attempts to increase the rate of and funding for prison education have been opposed. Opponents argue that prison education is a waste of money and that prisoners do not deserve the right to be educated. In countries where tuition is paid by students, opponents may also argue that it is unfair for prisoners to have education funding when law-abiding citizens do not.

Is prison education fair or unfair? Is public funding of prison education fair or unfair? Why or why not?


  1. SCOTUS for law students: Barbara Grutter, meet Abigail Fisher
  2. Coates, Ta-Nehisi (June 2014). "The Case for Reparations". The Atlantic. Retrieved November 20, 2014.
  3. Weigh More, Pay More, March 12, 2012, Project Syndicate, Peter Singer.
  4. George, Henry; Drake, Bob (December 31, 2006). Progress and Poverty. Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. pp. 319. ISBN 978-0911312980.  Chapter 29, History of Land as Private Property
  5. George, Henry; Drake, Bob (December 31, 2006). Progress and Poverty. Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. pp. 319. ISBN 978-0911312980.  Chapter 29, History of Land as Private Property