What Makes a Fair Society?

At a time when socio-economic inequality is growing across the world, this question was put to writers, ecologists, academics, humanitarians, film makers, artists and others in order to gather together ideas/ ideals/ mechanisms to improve civic institutions/ civil society, education and to advance knowledge of rights and responsibilities, to enable people in all societies to change their own lives and communities for the better. Some of our contributors are journalists such as Amol Rajan, editor of the Independent newspaper who writes that ‘among other things, a fair society is one in which virtues are promoted, the weak are protected and all people benefit equally from law, language and land.’ Others are artists like Ana Lima-Netto who suggests ‘ every human being establishes with their neighbour moral and civic values’, with ‘compassion towards others being the highest value’ a sentiment shared by Sola Tayo, Associate fellow at Chatham House who would like to see ‘respect for others, a desire to strive for equality and the spirit of kindness.’ The poet, Maria Grech Ganado thinks ‘education is essential to the formation of a fair society. ‘ Emeritus Prof Steven Schwartz, Director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Sydney wants ‘a society in which every citizen has an equal opportunity to compete for society’s rewards’. Rita O’Reilly, current affairs journalist with RTÉ prefers to interpret the word ‘fair’ as meaning ‘right-minded’, believing that ‘a fair society is one which takes steps to ensure those on the margins are offered the practical support they need to independently take their place in the world’. A fair society for April Cumming, Vice Chair of the Scottish Fabians is one where ‘taxation is not seen as a burden but more as part of the social contract that creates a more balanced system’. Academic, Timo Kivimäki, from the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki writes that ‘a fair society means one where certain conditions of distributive justice exist’. Antonia Swinson, Director of the Ethical Property Foundation suggests ‘we make a new assessment of Land Value Taxation for the benefit of small businesses, communities and individuals’ and Catherine Bisset from the Justice Analytical Unit in Holyrood is curious as to ‘how we can find ways to share our resources’.

What else might allow a fair society to flourish?

A new institution might be one answer – the founding of a new model for open access learning. Institutions are a vital component in creating tolerant, plural societies, ensuring power is sustainably devolved and the delivery of services, policies and initiatives for the benefit of the wider public good continues no matter what political persuasion the government of the time might be. As mechanisms of social interaction and progress, institutions for learning are essential to serve society’s needs, helping to form connections and facilitate dialogue to enable progressive reforms and positive change in our communities. At a time when university humanities programs are closing, tuition fees are increasing, financial support is being replaced with loans and the accelerated development of private universities continues, compromising consultation, autonomy and collective decision making, a new model would provide a democratic, open access educational institution offering full and equal participation for all – engaging everyone in learning on matters of social justice, political philosophy and democracy. The notion of socially engaged learning occupies a vital place in civic life, as a democracy can only be as progressive, dynamic and energetic as the minds of it’s citizens. A new model institution would be designed to encourage a different approach to learning, where intellectual enquiry is important for reasons other than economic growth, one which values questions more than answers – a place where speculative thought can be pursued free from obligations of financial value. `An institution such as this would seek to foster a collaborative spirit to challenge orthodoxies, encourage individuals to pursue innovative approaches to fundamental societal challenges through co-operation with other organisations and the wider community – advance public education, learning and knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizens. A new, permanent campus site with an international faculty would comprise a number of Fellows – academics, practitioners, innovators and independent thinkers who challenge conventional wisdom. Each Fellow would be on site, completing individual residencies for inter disciplinary research/ work of varying lengths between one week and one year. Fellows would work across media producing publications innovative public education projects and/ or the launch of new campaigns. While in residence, Fellows would be encouraged to organise and participate in conferences and program events. A permanent campus site would allow Fellows to engage in activities such as hosting panel discussions, conferences, readings, screenings and lectures in a space which might also include a library open to the public. And with Fellows participating in policy debates and promoting their ideas, there would be a continual sharpening of the new model institutions thinking, questioning it’s assumptions and broadening it’s understanding of current political and social issues. Students would be given the opportunity to attend the new model institution whenever they chose to do so, pursuing all subjects through individual/ group tutorials, lectures, seminars and classes; these would be organised by Fellows and/ or students in order to develop their own independent learning, critical thinking and methodologies, to question their ideas and reformulate their theories though dialogue. Working together in this way, students and Fellows would improve their own individual creativity, autonomy and resilience, encourage learning of both intellectual breadth and specialised knowledge and foster tolerance of diverse ideas and experiences; to engage in a process of open dialogue and cooperation. A new model institution would seek funding in the form of donations from individuals, charitable trusts and foundations ensuring independence and freedom to manoeuvre. What makes a fair society is a matter for us all. It is essential, therefore, to provide a space, geared to the future as we imagine it can be, to ensure we are well informed on the question of what a free, tolerant, democratic society might be and able to change our own lives and communities for the better.