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Professor Brad Hooker
the conflict of fairness – University of Reading

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  • Making the world a better place

    Working with alumni to achieve a real-world impact

Professor Brad Hooker
the conflict of fairness

​Growing up surrounded by intense moral controversy and social conflict, Professor Brad Hooker turned to philosophy as the focus of his undergraduate study. He hopes that his research into fairness can help illuminate this value and make the world a better place.

"I grew up in the southern part of America, and was a schoolchild in the 1960s. Racial and gender discrimination was all around me, and I thought it was absolutely awful. In addition, the oppression of other groups, such as homosexuals, was morally galling. I grew up in an environment where morality and fairness were impossible not to think about all the time.

I decided to study philosophy at university, in order to understand better the foundations of right and wrong. But my interest in philosophy only grew as I learnt more about it, and I've made moral philosophy the focus of my career."

researching topical issues

Brad's current research is on fairness:

"Fairness is widely invoked in everyday life and in political debate: in the last couple of elections at least three parties have quite clearly put themselves forward as the party of fairness, but they disagree about what fairness requires.

I published a book called Ideal Code, Real World, in 2000. That book explored the idea that right and wrong are determined by whatever code of rules would produce the most good. I realised during the writing of this book that a code which would make the world better in terms of well-being might nevertheless be unfair."

“But even if we can recognise instances of unfairness, we have great difficulty articulating a general principle explaining what is shared by all instances of unfairness."

"I hope to advance a theory of fairness which offers such a general principle. Alas, such a principle must have some complexity since fairness has multiple factors. For example, one of these factors concerns what different people deserve, and another factor concerns what different people need. But what people deserve and what people need are widely contentious and can conflict with one another – for instance, you might deserve something more than I do, but I might need it more than you do. No wonder fairness is so complicated and difficult to pin down. I hope my theory can not only explain why there's so many disputes about fairness but also help resolve some of these disputes."

Engaging with students

Brad teaches on his research topic at both undergraduate and postgraduate level:

"One of the undergraduate modules I teach is on fairness. This third-year module is connected with the University's placements scheme, which enables students to work for a non-academic institution and gain credit towards their degree. Many benefits come from students doing placements – in terms of improving students' skills and knowledge, building their network, and setting them up for their future careers." 

"I enjoy engaging students with my research through teaching. When I'm teaching philosophical material I've been working on for years and a student writes an essay that makes a point I haven't seen before, this knocks my head off!"

"A couple of times students have written undergraduate essays in my module that made points which were clearly right, once pointed out, and yet completely original. These students went on to have their essays published later.

I have had quite a few PhD students. Some have studied at Reading from undergraduate level, and some have come from other universities and indeed other countries. I learn a huge amount from my PhD students. This past year, one of my students finished his PhD on moral arguments about the human/wild animal conflict in Africa. Another finished her PhD on disabilities and egalitarianism. All the investigations my PhD students do influence my own research, sometimes directly and other times indirectly. I had a student whose research was specifically on fairness. I now use one of her published papers as reading material in my undergraduate module on fairness."

​A reaL-world impact

Brad hopes that his research into fairness will have impact on the world outside universities:

"I am currently working with Liz Allum, who is the Reading International Solidarity Centre's Senior Education Coordinator and a former philosophy student at the University of Reading. Reading International Solidarity Centre is the leading provider for the teaching of citizenship and philosophy for children in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Centre runs training sessions for teachers on how to teach these subjects, and I'm working with Liz to try to take some of the recent gains in the understanding of fairness and inject them into the training manuals for teachers. Ultimately I hope this work will lead through into the education that children get on these subjects. "

“I hope that my research has both philosophical and practical importance, and yields improved ideas about fairness and a reduction in conflict."

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