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Ideas about fairness ripple through our everyday thinking, and we often find ourselves criticising practices, attitudes and judgments when they are unfair, but do we really know what it means to be fair? Since fairness is such a widely used concept, Dr Charlotte Newey hopes her research will have an impact on our world.

You only need to read political manifestos or listen to political debates to observe disagreements about what is fair and what fairness requires.

"For some, fairness means paying people according to what they produce. For others, it means ensuring all people have an opportunity to develop their ability to produce or create. Others suggest fairness should be understood in terms of people getting what they need. But policies to ensure that people get what they need would look very different to those that ensure people get opportunities or get paid according to their productivity."

Such debate leads to lively discussions between Charlotte and her students.

Exploring philosophical topics

While studying for her BA Philosophy at the University of Reading, Charlotte and her friends enjoyed philosophical debates on complex questions such as "Do we have free will?", "Can you be harmed after you die?", "What it is to be me?" and "Are we morally obliged to help other people much more than we typically do?" These exciting discussions inspired her to do her PhD in philosophy at the University of Reading to explore the Philosophical topics of fairness, moral demands, and global poverty.

During her PhD, Charlotte became particularly interested in burdens that fall to whole groups of people such as the global issue of climate change.

"Of course, individuals can take action to reduce their own carbon footprint. But impactful change needs collaborative action and  high compliance with carbon-reducing guidance. So, what should you do if you are already reducing your own carbon footprint and others aren’t? Should you give up your car and holidays, and change your diet? Why should you do more in the face of others doing less? One answer might be that by doing more, you might have a greater impact. If that’s right, there might be a moral obligation on you to do more. But is that fair?"

Debating real-world issues

Charlotte’s research feeds directly into her teaching, both in her second-year module Oppression, Inequality, and the Enemies of Democracy and her third-year module Fairness. She encourages students to use real-world examples when debating philosophical concepts such as how to allocate scarce medical resources.

"If there are not enough resources to go around, do you give to the neediest patients, or to those you are likely to help the most? Is there any difference in the fairness of giving small benefits to a large number of patients with minor ailments or to a very few patients with particularly complex health needs?  As is so often the case, there is no simple answer, but it certainly helps if we have a clearer understanding of fairness."

Celebrated teaching style

Students regularly praise Charlotte for her teaching and support, and she has consequently received multiple nominations for the Reading University Student Union Excellence Awards for her interactive, inclusive and enthusiastic teaching style.