Inequity, yet Justice
Before we begin, we should probably point out a lexical obstacle which many confront when interpreting the use of the word inequity. There is a very similar word, iniquity, which we have probably heard in relation to the concept of sin. Indeed, these words are related, but are neither synonyms nor variations one of the other ; iniquity is mostly associated with evil or wickedness – the intent to cause harm. For our intention here, now, however, we should put that aside to consider inequity as unfairness or injustice over against justice. We may need to note here as well that the Justice with which we are concerned here is primarily socio-economic or distributive justice.
And here we find an even greater obstacle : what do we know about justice to begin with before bounding off to presume to recognise injustice (inequity), not to mention indulging ourselves with the feeling that we are ‘combatting’ injustice ? The lesson here, laid out right at the beginning – What do we know about Justice ? For it is how we conceptualise Justice-as-fairness which will determine what we can then recognise as injustice, or Inequity-as-unfairness.
Let’s rephrase the question : what do we know about fairness ? The same formula will apply here as well, for it is how we frame our notions of fairness that influences what events/intentions we discriminate as lying outside of that framework, thus making them unfair (not within the bounds of fairness).
Another distinction that we need to be clear about is that inequity is not synonymous with inequality either, considering that equity and equality (the non negated substantives) express rather different notions. Equity refers to the access to that which one needs for self-determination so that those needs are fulfilled whereas equality means equal shares to everyone, whether the ‘equal share’ fulfils needs or not. At first glance, this does not seem so radical, but one doesn’t need follow either of these logics very far until one sees some quite different effects when ‘equal share’ (equality) shows up as quite unfair, leaving need unsatisfied (poverty) for some and as excess (wealth) for others.
Many of you may have seen this image :
(Sorry, I couldn’t embed the image here)
It shows us the basic difference between the terms and a solution which is ‘equitable but not equal’, although, within this context, quite fair/just according to the ideal of equity.
We ought not cast equality out either, nor should we rally ‘round the banner of equity as have done many of our political and media personalities. Equity as it were, has become quite the politico-economic buzzword in recent years. Indeed, there are many cases wherein we need to consider peoples’ circumstances as per equality and others where equity is much more crucial. In some of these cases we can take both approaches ; in others, equity and equality are antithetical, one to the other…
Though these notions are different, they are not systematically mutually antagonistic ; sometimes solutions can be both equitable and equal, sometimes they are one or the other, sometimes they are neither.
“The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances.”
~ Race Matters Institute
This quote illustrates also how equity is first and foremost situated in justice, prescribing treating everyone justly according to their circumstances. An idea of justice has already taken form.
So, this brings us back to our theme Inequity, yet Justice. As established before, we must have already conceptually framed justice before recognising what occurs outside of that domain. In short, we have to harbour already an idea of what is fair before recognising that some circumstances cannot be subscribed to our idea of fairness. Thus, the idea of justice is fundamental to judging circumstances as inequitable or not equitable. We have already therefore made some head-way into determining what is fair when judging the unfairness of any given situation. Or, to put it another way, we have a semi-solid notion about ‘what people deserve’. Ergo, ‘[Here is] Inequity’, yet ‘Justice [is already here also to some degree]’.
I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the multiple debates and dialogues (fortunately, there have been both) on distributive justice, but this is not truly the optic of this sermon. I would encourage everyone though to read/listen to/watch some of the plethora of talks/discussions one can find on-line to learn about distributive justice and how we’re perceiving inequity and inequality. But here, we’re just going to focus on our idea of fairness, as that is the keystone upon which the whole theme depends.
How then do we conceptualise ‘what is fair’ ? If one’s needs with regard to bolstering one’s capacity for self-determination (one of the most ponderous principles of Liberty), then to what degree must the circumstances need to correspond to the determined self ? At what point, in the interest of equity ought we try to change the circumstances to make them conform to the determination ? In what capacity would changing the circumstances lead to fairness and where would they risk becoming something very unfair ? How can we discriminate well which of very unequal self-determinations need to be treated equitably ? And since equity and justice concern living subjects, we also need to be comprehensive in scrutiny as to fair ‘to whom’ (existing social power structures) ?
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
~ Benjamin Franklin
(please keep in mind that ‘outraged’ must be only transitional anger, not vengeful !)
We cannot rely on common sense alone to answer any of these questions since common sense is dictated to us by our épistémè (the dominant discourse in a place & time). We should be very careful of regarding fairness/justice through the lens of what “everyone knows”… We kill Socrates every day with that sort of fallacious reasoning. As Jedi, and about what we could take this theme to admonish us, is to have a keen sense of discernment about what is ‘fair’ in any current situation. We ought to be contemplatively generous in our assessments of justice – not only where inequalities persist, but also as to what measure of equity would assure everyone a positive outcome. As Jedi, we need to be painfully lucid as to when we are hoping to champion ‘fairness’ and when we merely want to be seen as dispensing fair Justice in order to appear wise and just. Simulated fairness is unfair to everyone.
It is not equity to change the standards of a course or an exam for a disadvantaged learner ; equity would be ensuring a learning environment equally conducive to positive results for anyone, not just a particular case (no matter the number of ‘particular’ cases). It would not be equity to allow for a greater degree of near-/far-sightedness for those wishing to fly aeroplanes. In other words, all people should be guaranteed the basis of living in a dignified way before we get too concerned about whether one has an equitable set of circumstances for becoming a social media influencer… (I’m exaggerating a bit, but I hope you know where I’m going with that.)
John Rawls’i metric of “The Veil of Ignorance” is a much more difficult exercise than it appears ; one imagines having to judge the fairness/justice of a socioeconomic arrangement as though one did not know in what demographics of that arrangement one would have to live. As it were, this impels one to judge in accordance with the most advantageous position for the most disadvantaged parties.
But then on the other hand (and this is why we need to be keen judges of fairness), we should be scrupulous about what needs we assure towards what determinations of self (becoming what one wants to be). We cannot level the playing field for those whose self determinations intend harm to others. That harm could be merely causing other unfair/unjust circumstances to arise for others, or even for themselves. Put otherwise, it is not fair to allow someone to self-determine her/himself into a world of hurt : it is not unfair to prohibit children from playing in the middle of the street, no matter what the children feel about it. And to take it a step further, it would not be equity either to close the street to make it safe for the children who want to play there.
There’s really not much more to say about this. The lesson is as was stated in the beginning : when we consider inequity as per our pre-established notion about what is fair/just, we need to first pay particular attention to just how fair our notion of fair would actually be. Goalposts tend to move around a lot and not at all in an impartial manner. Next, we need to be sure of what needs ought to be assured from the outset in order to permit the realisation of goals that promote fairness outside of particular intentions ; that is, no self-aggrandising, exploitative or dominating ones, nor inequity (nor inequality) fostering goals should we approach with equity. Equity for one must not equate to inequity for another.
Now, many may have noticed that nowhere in this sermon have “rights” been mentioned. This is because that when we speak of rights, we are merely acknowledging what is ‘legal’. We all have the right to do many things which are not fair, and therefore rights become a very flimsy metric as to what is fair. Corporate law is an obvious example of this : under the law, party X has the legal right to pursue party Y, although party Y is clearly disadvantaged in all regards. In this way, just because some course of action is ‘legal’ – they have a “right” to do it – that does not make it fair and the whole notion of Justice-as-fairness goes right out the window. Thus, our best ideas of someone’s (even our own) “rights” are not a good measure of what is fair.
There is no conclusion to this. The central lessons are spelt out right from the beginning and we are all still learning them. No one can really “teach” them for no one has ever mastered them. But in the several millennia we have sought to know “what is Justice/fairness ?” we may have gotten a bit closer than under previous hegemonic paradigms. The current media shit-show about equity, even if having little other discursive value, does at the very least show that the exploration of “What is Justice ?” is still very much alive in our collective psyche. Although some avenues of pursuing a truer justice lead us farther from the goal of true fairness, it can only be a positive thing that Justice and fairness – even if we often get them wrong – are still core values of humanity.
21 septembre 2023
iA Theory of Justice, John Rawls, Harvard University Press, (c) 1971