While people will be angry if student loans are cancelled and might believe this anger proves this would be unfair, this sort of “reasoning” has it backwards. While people should be angry at unfairness, anger does not prove that something is unfair. People can, obviously enough, be angry about things that are fair and even things that are unfair in ways advantageous to them—yet not as unfair in their favor as they might wish. As such, as was discussed in the previous essay, it is no surprise that arguments from anger against student loan cancellation are flawed.
People also use the concepts of fair and unfair when engaged in moral masking. This is a rhetorical technique in which a person uses moral language to create the appearance that they are making moral claims or arguments when they are not. In most cases, those using this technique are concealing their own self-interest, desires, or feelings about the matter behind a mask of morality. The rhetorical advantage is that the person seems to have more laudable motivations or reasons than simple expressions of their wants and feelings. To illustrate saying “I would resent it if other people had their student loans cancelled” is probably less persuasive than saying “student loan cancellation would be unfair.”
Being a professional philosopher, I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are philosophical theories in which moral claims are expressions of emotions or preferences. While this oversimplifies things, on such views saying, “student loan cancellation is unfair” would be means something like “I don’t like student loan cancellation” or even “student loan cancellation yuck!” Crudely put, there would be nothing more to ethics than these feelings or preferences. Fortunately, even if these views of ethics are correct, we could still have a meaningful debate about whether student loan forgiveness is fair in terms of considering the quality of the arguments advanced in favor of the various positions. There are also some sophisticated theories of emotion or preference-based ethics that do allow for meaningful moral debate about which feelings or preferences are more apt. But let us set aside these rather theoretical meta-ethical concerns and get into the debate over fairness and student loan cancellation.
While people tend to think they know what is fair (and hence unfair), they usually do not even have a well-considered concept of fairness. So, a sensible place to begin is with some discussion of the notion of fairness. Perhaps the simplest version of fairness is that everyone gets the same treatment. This view does have considerable appeal and is one I use when teaching. For example, students will sometimes ask for individual extra credit. My response is always that allowing this would be unfair to the other students. While this oversimplifies things, a fair class treats the students the same.
On this view of fairness, student loan cancellation would clearly be unfair. Those who happened to have unpaid student loans right now would receive a benefit that no one else would. Those who paid off their loans, especially those who did so soon before the forgiveness, would be denied this government largesse because they were responsible and probably made sacrifices to repay their loans. Many people who never took out student loans could contend that the debts they have are just as deserving of cancellation as student loans. Since everyone is not getting the same treatment, student loan cancellation is wrong and should not be done. This can be presented as an argument from fairness:
Premise 1: Government student loan debt cancellation would not treat people the same.
Premise 2: The government not treating people the same is unfair.
Premise 3: Treating people unfairly is wrong.
Conclusion: Student loan debt cancellation is wrong.
While this is certainly a viable moral position, it runs directly into the fact that the government routinely treats people differently. For example, business owners and corporations receive subsidies (agricultural subsidies are a common example) that other people do not receive. As another example, the wealthy and corporations enjoy the advantages of tax laws and policies that allow some of them to pay no taxes despite being greatly benefited by the state. As such, if someone uses this sort of fairness argument against student loan debt cancellation, then they would be inconsistent if they failed to apply it to other cases in which the government does not treat people the same—which is most cases.
There are two main approaches to having the government treat people the same. One is for the government not to do things—this would treat people the same because the government would not be doing anything for anyone. For example, not providing any form of relief or benefits (such as student loan cancellation or tax cuts) would treat people the same. Taking this to the extreme would result in anarchism (the elimination of the coercive state) or a return to the state of nature (the possible fictional state without any governments). While there are those who advocate anarchism and even those who favor the state of nature, these would be a long way to go just to avoid cancelling student loan debt.
The other approach is for the government to do things but ensure that each person receives the same treatment. That is, each person would get the same services and benefits from the state. For example, if one person received subsidies, then everyone would. If one person got a 10% tax cut, then everyone would. If one person had $50,000 in debt cancelled, then everyone would (perhaps getting a voucher for future debt). Taken to the extreme, this would resemble a common straw-person version of socialism in which everyone is treated exactly the same by the state. While this might have some initial appeal, some reflection shows that it would be absurd—everyone does not have the same needs and wants, so treating everyone the same would hardly be optimal. Although it could be argued that for most of us it would be better than it is now if we were all treated like the wealthy, the powerful and the corporations by the state.
It would seem that taking fairness as treating people the same in order to argue that cancelling student loan debt is unfair would lead to some problems: one would seem to be committed to either the state treating everyone the same by doing nothing (that is, no more state) or by having the state treat everyone the same—which would seem absurd (though it could be a huge upgrade for most of us). As such, we need to consider another conception of fairness.