Two Definitions of ‘Equity’

An excerpt from “What Can ‘Equity’ Be?” in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 27, No. 1 (Winter 2024)

We are awash in claims about equity, some of which are quite serious, others frivolous. In many cases it is not immediately clear what real or perceived injustice prompts the claims nor is it clear what practical remedy is proposed. The use of the word itself is meant to elicit approval from the reader; how can anyone not be in favor of equity in society? On the other hand, unless someone clearly understands what the term means, what concepts it expresses, what injustices it identifies in particular cases, and what it demands, how can anyone authentically support equity? Modern usage calls for clarity and is impotent without it.

We can begin by stipulating that any substantive meaning of equity will be related to justice. Indeed, we can say that to pursue equity in any situation is to pursue justice. Most philosophers in history, of whatever school, have insisted that realizing the ideal of justice is rarely possible in the world in which we live. At best we may achieve an approximation.

This, I suggest, is the first and most common meaning of “equity,” which is fairness in practice. That is, an equitable resolution to the debt of justice is one that is peacefully accepted by those involved as a reasonable approximation to the requirements of justice. To seek equity in this sense is to assent to a resolution that may not be optimal for every party but that can be judged, at least by objective observers, to be a good resolution.

A second, more technical meaning of equity is related to the first and arises in the context of formal law. One of the great contributions of ancient Rome to Western civilization was a highly developed jurisprudence and system of law, including these three germane considerations regarding equity.

First, law regulates behaviors, not thoughts. Second, there are many elements of the life of a society that civil law should not attempt to regulate, such as the inner life of the family and private relationships. Third and most relevant, the recognition that even the best laws are blunt, imprecise instruments. They are crafted (as Aquinas said) with what usually happens in mind, but they cannot always account for the unusual.

This realization brought the Romans (and the Greeks before them) to distinguish between aequalitas (equality) and aequitas (equity). In a just system, persons would be equal before the law; no one should have an advantage (or disadvantage) or receive preferential treatment on account of poverty or wealth, social status, or any other incidental personal attribute. To honor this would be to respect aequalitas before the law.

But inevitably there are instances in civil matters that present circumstances to a judge not anticipated by the letter of the law. To follow the law in cases like this would often fail to achieve the justice intended by the lawgiver. So, for more than two millennia Western law in the Greek and Roman tradition has, in one form or another, empowered judges and magistrates to set aside the letter of the law in special circumstances in order to achieve the just outcome that the law actually intends. To do this would be to respect aequitas as a complement to formal law.

To put this another way, to appeal to equity from equality is to argue that there are relevant circumstances that make one unequal, or dis-abled, before the law, that the law as written is defective in the face of the facts before the court and requires the correction of an equitable decision. In this second sense, equity is seen to be a complement and a corrective, in the service of justice, of the inevitable shortcomings of even the best legislation.

In connection with both of these definitions of equity, it is important to note that there is an underlying assumption that the social world we inhabit is imperfect in many ways and that it cannot be made perfect. However hard we try, justice is often an approximation rather than an exact and actual conformity to an ideal. Christians have always recognized this and so have emphasized the necessity of charity (love of the other), mercy, and forgiveness for a peaceful social life. Indeed, charity (whether natural or supernatural), beneficence, generosity, and similar virtues have always been seen in the Western tradition to be not so much elements of justice but complements to it, out of which individuals served the well-being of others even where they had no duty to do so. Catholic social tradition reminds us that even if perfect justice could be achieved, there would still be need for charity and beneficence.

This story is featured in the spring 2024 issue of Lumen.