Fairness is all about treating people as equals. Yet as the English philosopher and essayist Francis Bacon put it as far back as 1605 in The Advancement of Learning, “It is in life as it is in ways, the shortest way is commonly the foulest, and surely the fairer way is not much about.” Why is that ? Partly it is because we tend to assume that one person’s loss is another person’s gain. Add to that the idea that the amount we earn reflects our value as human beings, and the notion of equality goes flying out the window. The rise of the super-rich all over the world has blurred the fundamental truths on equality. Writing in The New Yorker about the growing tendency of wealthy people to feel persecuted by growing awareness and criticism of inequality after the financial crisis, James Surowiecki points out that for many of the business leaders upset at criticism “it’s an article of faith that people succeed or fail because that’s what they deserve.” He goes on to make a salient point: “If you believe that net worth is a reflection of merit, then any attempt to curb inequality looks unfair.” You don’t need to be trained in ‘unconscious bias’ to realise that this obsession with net worth has worked its way across the Atlantic and instilled itself deeply in our culture. Britain’s obsession with celebrities and celebrity culture is testimony enough to that. It is also deeply in our media coverage. A piece in the Financial Times about board appointments and women last week had this somewhat shocking throwaway line: “Anyone over the age of seven who questions whether something is fair needs a reality check, as life is never fair.” That is the voice of someone with power, money – and an ability to dismiss anyone who doesn’t have it. It is certainly true that life doesn’t start out fair, in that each individual is born into a different set of circumstances. But it is a rare individual who would argue against the notion that ‘all men (and women) are born equal.’ In between birth and death there is membership into a club that mercifully sets no hoops for us to jump through first: society. It is up to us, then, to ensure we communicate and collaborate better for a fairer society. ‘We, the people’ are the citizens, the consumers, the workers, the shareholders and the investors in our businesses. Technology has empowered us and given us a voice, if we choose to use it. Realigning ‘net worth’ to begin to reflect human value would be an excellent start. Change is in the air. In the financial services sector, a bold initiative #bankingstandards has begun. Bankers at Barclays are even going ‘back to school’ to ensure they ‘get it’ when it comes to compliance. In the UK at least, financial services appears to have suddenly discovered ‘ethics’ is important to the ‘bottom line.’ If this sector – which has always measured itself in ‘net worth’ terms – can even begin to think twice about anything, that is progress. Any bid for a fairer society must take as its binding truths both recognition of equality and a commitment to behaving in an ethical way, across public and private sectors.
Dina Medland, Writer, Editor