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Is Fairness in the Eye of the Beholder?

James Konow

Abstract

A popular sentiment is that fairness is inexorably subjective and incapable of being determined by objective standards. This chapter, on the other hand, seeks to establish evidence on unbiased justice and to propose and demonstrate a general approach for measuring impartial views empirically. Most normative justice theories associate impartiality with limited information and consensus. In both the normative and positive literature, information is usually seen as the raw material for self-serving bias and disagreement. In contrast, this chapter proposes a type of impartiality that is associated with a high level of information and that results in consensus. The crucial distinction is the emphasis here on the views of impartial spectators, rather than implicated stakeholders. I describe the quasi-spectator method, i.e., an empirical means to approximate the views of impartial spectators. Results of a questionnaire provide evidence on quasi-spectator views and support this approach as a means to elicit moral preferences. By establishing a relationship between consensus and impartiality, this chapter helps lay an empirical foundation for welfare analysis, social choice theory, and practical policy applications.

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