When “Equity” Becomes Unethical

What is social justice? Is it a moral capitalism? What ethics should constrain the power of rulers? What is the fitting status for individuals in society – pawn or king? In chess, pawns are often sacrificed to protect higher status players.

In the U.S. today, we have opened a very acrimonious debate over the meaning of social justice, asking what is right and proper. The issues are complicated; the way forward not obvious; the various narratives internally confused. The particular setting for our contentions is a heritage of slavery, civil war to end slavery, prejudice on the part of a majority against one particular discrete and insular minority, a civil rights movement and success in life outcomes for some with that minority status, but setbacks and disadvantages experienced by others with that same status.

“What is to be done?” we ask, borrowing a challenge to the status quo asked by famous proponents of social change in Russia.

A new term has been put front and center in our debate – “equity.” But what does “equity” mean? Fairness? But that is only the surface of the conundrum. How much of what will make for fair outcomes? Fairness to whom? Who will benefit? Who should pay for those benefits? Does fairness in life require personal diligence and commitment to excellence?

As former President Jimmy Carter said: “Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t. But I don’t believe that the federal government should take action to try make these opportunities exactly equal, particularly when there is a moral factor involved.”

The Caux Round Table Principles for Government look to individuals as the unit by which to measure the actuality of justice.

But that is not how many American advocates now use the term “equity.”

Getting social justice right is a challenge for all cultures and societies. Invidious distinctions and different lived experiences among groups and individuals are as old as the tribal origins of our species. How should wealth, power and privilege be distributed? By fiat, through competition or with a little help from our friends?

I have reflected from the perspective of individualism, drawing on Aristotle, Chinese ethics and the practice of equity over the centuries in the courts of England in the comment which you can read here.

Your comments regarding “equity” would be most appreciated.