Rationale for further strengthening our original Fairness Framework
By Dr Nigel Dower, member of the Food Ethics Council
Originally written in September 2020, revised in January 2021

The introduction of the three dimensions of fairness/justice – fair share, fair play, fair say – in the original Food Justice Report represented a very useful way of thinking of various aspects of fairness/justice as applied to food policy and food issues. The original report covered three themes of sustainability, food security and health. Although these can have relevance to animals and planet as well as humans, the Report’s treatment of the themes was mainly human-centred. Here we wish to make explicit the key question: fairness for whom?

This new grid represents an attempt to build on the original framework in a way that brings out more fully the distinctions to be made, while integrating it into the ‘in the round’ approach that the Food Ethics Council itself takes on food issues. The main rationale for this more complex grid is the attempt to marry the three dimensions of fairness/ justice with three aspects of fairness that the Food Ethics Council has long been committed to in its mission statement – food systems that are fair for people, animals and planet. Since the Food Ethics Council is committed to both triads, the grid spells out as far as possible the logical consequences of such a commitment. It also makes good sense as an analysis of the complexity of ethical issues involved. It should be noted that the extension of the grid to non-human life and to the planet in terms of the concept of fairness may be regarded by some as extending the concept too far. Certainly the idea of fairness (and related cognate concepts like rights and justice) to higher animals is familiar enough, but to non-human life more generally and to things like species and ecosystems it is not so familiar or natural. In this respect two points need to be made. The extensions in the lower part of the grid do make sense in respect to our responsibility not to cause harm to individual living things and to species/ecosystems. That human practices are destroying unnecessarily or for no good moral reason individual living things or species is a moral failure – we cause something bad to happen (and not just because it is bad for humans). Second, it is not claimed here that all matters of moral right and wrong can be usefully cast in terms of fairness, justice or rights. Nevertheless we believe it to be plausible to formulate the moral concerns we do raise in terms of the two fairness triads – and if the reader is resistant to this, he or she needs to consider whether that resistance derives from not seeing them as moral issues at all or derives from seeing them as moral issues expressed in other ways.

There is however a serious limitation to the model insofar as it is only human beings that can directly engage in activities and practices which reflect or fail to reflect principles of fair play and fair say. Higher animals, life in general and the planet as a whole are not moral agents who can negotiate, agree to different schemes of cooperation, institutions, implementation of rights etc. There is an asymmetry of power (though not an absolute one because nature can hit back and generally sets limits to what humans can do), though more significantly an asymmetry of moral responsibility. Therefore if the primary category of fair share in terms of access to the conditions of living well for all is accepted for all categories, then we humans have a moral responsibility to devise institutions, practices and rights that ensure that access for all, human and non-human. We also have a moral responsibility to use our voice, in terms of our own decisions we make in respect to animals and environment and in terms of our collective decision-making in which we are able to represent the interests of other beings and indeed the future generations who for different reasons do not have a current say. The asymmetry of power in relations to non-humans derives from a fundamental duality in the relationship humans has to non-humans: in one respect humans are apart from nature because of self-consciousness, the capacity for explicit moral understanding and the consequent power of choice; in another respect humans are fully part of nature and parts of complex ecosystems. Part of the problem with the way we have collectively treated nature stems from forgetting the latter part of our nature – our being an integral part of the living world. (The need to return to a more integrated relationship to the natural world is well illustrated by the approach of agroecology.)

The relationship between fair share, fair play and fair say is complex – they are not entirely discrete. As indicated above, fair share in some sense is the primary goal of social justice – everyone having access to conditions of a good life. This of course centrally involves having access to adequate nutritious and culturally relevant food on a sustainable basis, having access to sufficient potable water, to health care, to housing, to economic security and to the bases of dignity and self-worth, etc. Fair play and fair say are relevant to this in two respects. First, if these aspects of fairness are properly in place in society, then it is more likely that fair share will be achieved for all – it is precisely because everyone has certain basic rights including minorities, there are proper social safety nets, there is real equality of opportunity and/or there is a vigorous democratic culture in which institutions can be held to account, that fair share is likely to be achieved. Second, the various dimensions of fair play and fair say are not merely means towards achieving the conditions of fair share but also intrinsically valuable aspects of justice themselves. and this is reflected in the fact that amongst the elements of the good life that people are meant to have access to are, for instance, the sense of belonging to a society in which their rights are respected, they are not discriminated against and they have a say in how things go.

Within the category of fair share the aspect in the top left-hand corner is perhaps the most fundamental – actual access to the conditions of a good life for individuals. However, the overall category even for humans is actually more complex in two respects. The second column (which we admit is conceptually the most difficult and possibly not fully worked out here) represents the thought that often enough the reason why some humans have failed to have proper access to well-being is because either other humans have exercised power in a way that has frustrated this or because their way of life (in terms of wealth and use of resources) has indirectly contributed to that frustration. This is not a new thought and was expressed in the Gandhian idea that ‘the world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed’ and more recently in the rather apt saying, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s hunger’ (which now has an ecological twist to it, in so far as it is recognised that sustainable food production in the world almost certainly requires a reduction in meat production and an increase in other forms of plant-based food production). This is illustrated by the patterns of colonial exploitation, currently neo-colonial exercise of power by powerful countries and multinational companies in determining the conditions under which food is produced by workers that are not cared for well enough or paid enough; or in a quite different way by the cumulative consequences of high carbon lifestyles (e.g. extensive travel or the expectation of high levels of consumption of resources). We include this as an aspect of fair share to indicate that the concept is about upper as well as lower limits (which is reminiscent of part of the message of the two rings in Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics). The recognition of the need not to exceed limits in various ways is in part a matter of moral commitment, and it stands as an additional factor alongside fair play and fair say as necessary tools for achieving fair share in the positive sense (as well as being one of the motives for supporting these ideas).

One of the additions in this grid to the original triad is the recognition of the importance of fairness for groups. This applies to many types of groups, but has been brought to the foreground by the recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. One thing that a ‘groups’ category brings out is that whilst fair share does not and cannot mean that every individual has an equal share (only an equal share of what is necessary to flourish), there is something specifically unfair about the situation in which members of particular groups have on average less access to levels of resources above the minimum conditions of a good life. The category also brings out the fact that there are specific aspects of fair play and fair say which must reflect the status of these group identities – the rights of minorities, lack of cultural discrimination and proper voice for subgroups. There is of course often a certain fluidity and changeability over time over what groups are significant groups; this is partly shaped by the self-identity of those inside groups and partly shaped by how others identified them.

Another category made more explicit than in the original report is the importance of international fairness between nations. This has particular relevance for the past practices of colonialism, but it is also important to make sure that, for instance, the food policies that a country pursues are such that they do not cause food problems in other countries (e.g. supporting monocultures that lead to local household food insecurity), or perhaps more significantly do not depend on imports of food being produced under standards which are lower than those practised by the country itself – for instance in the treatment of farmers, the treatment of animals and the treatment of the environment.

Most of the other distinctions in the grid are more straightforward and self-explanatory. Whilst any particular element and its accompanying description may be questioned, the grid provides a framework for working through the consequences of accepting certain ethical principles and accepting certain categories of beings to whom the principles apply.

Finally, we need to step back and take note of the status from a theoretical point of view of the grid and this analysis.

First, this grid does not represent a single theory of social justice, but rather reflects a variety of considerations, which can be seen as aspects of fairness that are commonly and widely employed in ethical discussions of food policies and other aspects of public policy. Different theories will put theoretical primacy on different aspects of the grid, but most thinkers, whatever their primary principle, will give some recognition to the various other elements in practice. Although the Food Ethics Council, 10 years on from its original Food Justice report, talks positively of fair share, fair play and fair say, it recognises that in some ways the key driver of changes in food policy comes from the need to reduce serious instances of unfairness in the system – e.g. food poverty , cruelty to animals, soil degradation and lack of fair trade for farmers in the Global South. It is recognised by many that whilst our theories of justice may be different, most of us can generally agree on wanting to reduce manifest unfairness or injustice and what these are (as Amartya Sen argues in The Idea of Justice). At the very least this grid provides a range of indicators for measuring progress away from unfairness to fairness.

Second, we need to note the relationship of this grid to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) since much public policy is oriented towards these internationally agreed goals. The SDGs are not formulated in terms of requirements of fairness or justice (though goal 16 does touch on justice in certain specific senses), and the focus of the SDGs is clearly on sustaining the conditions of human well-being rather than that of non-humans. But all the elements identified in the SDGs are means to and/or elements of what is needed for all humans to achieve well-being, and there is an underlying but unstated ethical imperative, namely that insofar as human beings have it in their power progressively to realise the goals of the SDGs, they ought to do so both nationally and internationally. Whilst this ethical imperative is not assumed to be one of fairness or justice, nevertheless if our grid is accepted, it can be interpreted as such an imperative. From the point of view of the SDGs the non-human elements identified in the grid serve as a context or constraint within which the SDGs need to be promoted.

Third, the grid has not been primarily framed in terms of rights (though rights feature in certain parts of the grid). This is not because we think that the language of rights is not appropriate here. Indeed a plausible way of interpreting fairness is in terms of the rights to the conditions for achieving all the primary elements of human well-being plus the rights to the social, economic, legal and political structures needed both nationally and internationally to enable the primary rights to be achieved. Fairness has been the primary concept here precisely because the FEC has used the two fairness triads to state its position. It should be added that rights discourse can be more controversial and complex partly because it straddles both ethical and legal dimensions, and use of rights language has to be carefully handled because sometimes the impression is given that rights are exclusively about human rights. But our grid can be interpreted as being about rights in the background, provided it is accepted that rights make sense in non-human contexts as well and thus given an integrated holistic understanding.

Fourth, the way the framework is presented may give rise to the impression that, given the right way to progressively realise the goals in the grid, this means that all the elements of fairness can be achieved in a perfectly frictionless way. This impression is certainly not intended since there are tensions, for instance based on competing cultural norms about food practices, which may lead to conflicts and dilemmas. Addressing specific food policy issues may well involve dilemmas and conflicts. This framework does not attempt to deal with this aspect of implementation, but represents the complexity or multi-dimensional nature of fairness issues in respect to food production, distribution and consumption.


Since this framework and its rationale are premised on their being open and evolving, this version invites constructive feedback. Concepts of fairness are not static and we acknowledge people will have different perspectives and may subscribe (legitimately) to different theories of justice. We urge you to try out this new fairness framework (click here) and to let us know when and how you find it useful.