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What's Fair?

What's Fair? A Lecture Series on Justice and Desert in America

In America today, a great debate is underway about what’s fair: from economic policy and political disputes to educational reforms and the courts, Americans disagree about fairness. This debate involves many vexing questions. What is a just tax code? Does the free market fairly distribute goods and services? What is the right structure of social benefits? Should self-interest be our guide or do we have duties to our fellow citizens? Which punishments are deserved for what crimes? Does our constitutional order achieve political justice? These are but a few of the issues about which we disagree.

To explore the question of fairness, this lecture series brings to the University of Houston speakers from different disciplinary backgrounds and points of view. The co-sponsors of the series, the Phronesis Program in Politics and Ethics and the Hobby Center for Public Policy, seek to enrich our civic discourse by inviting speakers with intellectually diverse views to engage our campus and community in discussions of serious moral, political, and economic questions.

Previous Events in the Series


March 20 - John Tomasi - Free Market Fairness

Dr. Tomasi's new book, Free Market Fairness, draws on moral insights from defenders of economic liberty such as F.A. Hayek and advocates of social justice such as John Rawls. In Free Market Fairness he develops a hybrid theory of liberal justice, one committed to both limited government and the material betterment of the poor. Free market fairness seeks to combine the uncombinables: capitalism and democracy, private property and social justice, free markets and fairness, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Free market fairness, he believes, is social justice, American style. He is currently working with Matt Zwolinski on a book called A Brief History of Libertarianism.

February 22 - Thomas Pogge - Fairness of People and Procedures

Thomas PoggeThere is a deep tension between two fundamental elements of common morality: between our commitment to impartiality and the equality of all human beings, on the one hand, and our loyalty to our family, friendships, religion, and associations, on the other. This lecture discusses two ways of resolving this tension.

Having received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, Thomas Pogge has published widely on Kant and in moral and political philosophy. He is Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale, Research Director at the Oslo University Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN) and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science. His recent publications (see include Politics as Usual, Polity 2010; Kant, Rawls, and Global Justice (Chinese), Shanghai Translation Press 2010; and many others.

Pogge is President of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP), an international network aiming to enhance the impact of scholars, teachers, and students on global poverty by promoting their collaboration and outreach and by helping them turn their expertise into impact through specific intervention projects. Supported by the Australian Research Council, the European Commission, and the BUPA, Rockefeller, and Brocher Foundations, Pogge’s current work is focused on a team effort toward developing a complement to the pharmaceutical patent regime that would improve access to advanced medicines for the poor worldwide (

October 4 - Paul Woodruff - The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards

Paul WoodruffWe live in a world where CEOs give themselves million dollar bonuses even as their companies go bankrupt and ordinary workers are laid off; where athletes make millions while teachers struggle to survive; a world, in short, where rewards are often unfairly meted out. In this lecture based on his new book The Ajax Dilemma, Professor Paul Woodruff of UT Austin examines one of today's most pressing moral issues: how to distribute rewards and public recognition without damaging the social fabric. How should we honor those whose behavior and achievement is essential to our overall success? Is it fair or right to lavish rewards on the superstar at the expense of the hardworking rank-and-file? How do we distinguish an impartial fairness from what is truly just? Woodruff builds his answer to these questions around the ancient conflict between Ajax and Odysseus over the armor of the slain warrior Achilles. King Agamemnon arranges a speech contest to decide the issue. Ajax, the loyal workhorse, loses the contest, and the priceless armor, to Odysseus, the brilliantly deceptive strategist who will lead the Greeks to victory. Deeply insulted, Ajax goes on a rampage and commits suicide, and in his rage we see the resentment of every loyal worker who has been passed over in favor of those who are more gifted, or whose skills are more highly valued. How should we deal with the "Ajax dilemma"? Woodruff argues that while we can never create a perfect system for distributing just rewards, we can recognize the essential role that wisdom, compassion, moderation, and respect must play if we are to restore the basic sense of justice on which all communities depend

About Paul Woodruff

Paul Woodruff is the Darrell K. Royal Professor of Ethics & American Society at the University of Texas in Austin. In this role, he is a classicist, professor of philosophy, and dean. He completed his A.B. in Classics at Princeton University, and continued his studies at Merton College of Oxford University where he completed a bachelor’s degree in literae humaniores. Inspired by his Socratic belief in the rule of law, Woodruff served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, attaining the rank of Captain. Once back home stateside, he returned to Princeton University to complete his doctorate in philosophy, studying under Gregory Vlastos.

After graduating from Princeton, Woodruff joined the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas in Austin, where he has remained to this day. Woodruff’s record of university service is enviable, having previously been chair of the philosophy department, named the Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities, directed the Plan II Honors program as the Hayden Head Regents Chair, served on the Task Force for Curricular Reform, and appointed to serve as the inaugural dean of undergraduate studies by UT President William C. Powers, Jr.

While his specialty is ancient Greek philosophy, he is also interested in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature. Woodruff is a widely published translator of Plato, Sophocles, Thucydides, and other ancient writers; he has written extensively on classical philosophy and political thought. Well-known for his influential articles on Socrates and Plato, Professor Woodruff has also published critical editions of Plato's Hippias Major, Ion, Symposium, and Phaedrus. He has also written on topics in aesthetics and ethics, and has several works that interpret classical political philosophy for political, business, or personal situations in contemporary life.

Much like his record of service, Woodruff’s publications are numerous and enviable, including The Ajax Dilemma, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy, Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists, Facing Evil: Light at the Core of Darkness, Thucydides on Justice, Power, and Human Nature, and contributions to Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, Essays on Aristotle's Poetics, and The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy.

He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and has twice directed National Endowment for the Humanities seminars on ancient philosophy. Woodruff has won a multitude of honors and fellowships, including the Harry Ransom Teaching Award, and induction into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

October 25 - Tom Hurka - Two Levels of Desert

HurkaClaims about desert are made at two levels: an individual level, where we talk about what an individual deserves given what he on his own has done, and a societal level, where we look for a pattern where what people have is proportioned to their deserts, so those deserve more have more and those who deserve less have less. Claims at these two levels often support the same conclusion but sometimes conflict. This lecture will discuss the relationship between the two types of desert claim, with specific reference to moral desert, criminal desert, and economic desert.

About Thomas Hurka

Thomas Hurka is the Chancellor Henry N. R. Jackman Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Studies at the University of Toronto.  He previously held a faculty position at the University of Calgary, Hurka received his B.Phil. and D.Phil. in Philosophy at Oxford University, after a B.A. at the University of Toronto.

Hurka’s main area of research and teaching is moral and political philosophy, especially normative ethical theory.  He is particularly interested in the perfectionist moral theories explored in his books Perfectionism and Virtue, Vice, and Value, as well as in numerous articles. But he has also discussed the justification of punishment, population ethics, nationalism, friendship, the morality of war, and the ethics of global warming. Previously, he wrote a weekly ethics column for the Globe and Mail newspaper; a selection of his columns were published as Principles: Short Essays on Ethics.

He is currently writing a book on The Good Things in Life, which explores the many things - pleasure, knowledge, achievement, virtue, personal love - that can make one's life desirable.  Additionally, he is working on a scholarly monograph tentatively titled British Moral Philosophy From Sidgwick to Ross.

November 30 - Ruth Grant - Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives

Incentives can be found everywhere—in businesses, schools, factories and government—influencing people's choices about almost everything, from financial decisions to exercise. So long as people have a choice, incentives seem innocuous. But when incentives are viewed as a kind of power, many ethical questions arise: Can incentive be manipulative or exploitative, even if people are free to refuse them? How do incentives affect character and institutional culture? What are the responsibilities of the powerful in using incentives?  Professor Ruth Grant of Duke University will tackle these kinds of questions in a lecture based on her new book, Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives. She will argue that, like all other forms of power, incentives can be subject to abuse, and I try to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate uses of them.

About Ruth Grant

Ruth Grant is a Professor of Political Science at Duke University and a Senior Fellow in the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. She specializes in political theory with a particular interest in early modern philosophy and political ethics.  Grant earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Chicago. 

Grant is the author of John Locke's Liberalism and of Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau and the Ethics of Politics. She is also the editor of two collections of essays; Naming Evil, Judging Evil and In Search of Goodness. Grant’s most recent book is Strings Attached: Untangling Ethics of Incentives. Additionally, she is currently working on a collaborative project that explores goodness, and she has written for the online news source, The Huffington Post.

Her work originally focused on the historical study of liberal thought and has moved increasingly toward contemporary ethics. Grant’s writings have influenced a variety of audiences in several fields, including political science, medicine, law, education, economics, and philosophy.  Within her own field, her articles have appeared in APSR, Political Theory, Journal of Politics, and Politics and Society. Finally, Grant has received notable fellowship awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, and the Russell Sage Foundation, and an award for teaching excellence from Duke University.