Document Type

Article - pre-print

Publication Date



A popular sentiment is that fairness is inexorably subjective and incapable of being determined by objective standards. This study, 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 paper 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 paper helps lay an empirical foundation for welfare analysis, social choice theory and practical policy applications.

“There is no objective standard of ‘fairness.’ ‘Fairness’ is strictly in the eye of the beholder... To a producer or seller, a ‘fair’ price is a high price. To the buyer or consumer, a ‘fair’ price is a low price. How is the conflict to be adjudicated?” – Milton Friedman, Newsweek, July 4, 1977.

Publisher Statement

This is an author-manuscript of an article accepted for publication in Social Choice and Welfare following peer review. The version of record is available online at: 10.1007/s00355-008-0348-2.

Recommended Citation

Konow, James (2009). “Is Fairness in the Eye of the Beholder?: An Impartial Spectator Analysis of Justice,” Social Choice and Welfare, vol. 33, no. 1 (June), pp. 101-127.

Included in

Economics Commons