Equity and Equality

TL;DR: Behaving fairly and appropriately to others, and treating everyone equally are often two very different things. We treat people differently based on who they are and our relationship with them. Just because we treat two people differently does not mean that we are being unfair to either. We should strive to treat people equitably (fairly), equality is not an inherent goal.

In current social discussion one of the points that I believe is missed the most frequently is the difference between equality and equity. Indeed, I believe that this is likely the most common source from which much of what is toxic within modern discussion springs. What do I mean when I am talking about the difference between equity and equality? Simply that there is a difference between treating an individual “fairly” and treating them “the same”. Equity is treating others fairly. Equality is treating others identically. Cashiers at a restaurant are likely to treat all customers equally. You would not treat a sick person and a healthy person equally, but that doesn’t mean you are treating anyone with disrespect.

It is not hard to show why equity is a far superior goal to equality. It can be demonstrated incredibly easily: You do not treat me the same way as you treat a close family member. What is acceptable at a party is often not what is acceptable in a work environment. You would not interact with a novice English speaker in the same way you would treat someone who is obviously fluent in the language. Each of these cases demand that we treat people in different ways based on who they are and what the situation is. This does not, however, mean that we are treating any group unfairly or doing wrong by anyone. We are behaving appropriately to those who have a certain relationship to us. This is quite an easy thing to understand, and indeed it is something that comes quite naturally to most people. If it didn’t then it would be quite difficult for us to function within society.

Yet in many current social discussions it is as if we have no understanding for the difference between equity and equality. It often seems as if one just has to show a simple way in which two types of people (men and women, for instance) are treated in different ways to bring about outrage and show how the current social structure is fundamentally unjust. Yet an equitable understanding of the world shows that this is not inherently negative. So what if men and women are judged in somewhat different ways?This “inequality” is not obviously negative. Perhaps you believe that it is good or bad, and you can argue for your position, but simply pointing out an inequality is not enough. Similarly, one cannot simply point to differences in aggregate outcomes and say that one group of people is being treated unfairly. Aggregate outcomes are based on a wide variety of things, not the least of which are the choices made by the individuals within society. The gender wage gap, for instance, is precisely what we would expect if men and women are making different choices, or even if they are being “conditioned” in different ways to make different choices (this starts to get into some complex and sticky territory that will be left for a different article). Of course, it must also be stated that differences in outcomes or the ways in which individuals are treated may be indicative of unfair treatment, but simply pointing these inequalities out is entirely insufficient to prove the point.

Equality for its own sake is no goal. We do not want children to be treated just like adults, nor do we want people’s individual talents and personalities ignored. There are certainly areas where equality is a goal, but that is only when equality is deemed “equitable”, that is to say just, fair, and proper. For instance, I believe that men and women should be treated equally under the law, and that socially we should treat people of different racial backgrounds highly equally, with predisposition given to common culture and class differences. If we believe that something is unfair within our society, we must show why this is so, and present “better” models of social behavior that are readily achievable. Instead of this approach, however, I primarily see the awful doctrine of equality being flaunted as the de facto standard by which to judge all social interactions and outcomes, and whenever it is violated we have a kneejerk response of revulsion and a seek to “fix” this. Our society does not have any sense for the difference between equality and equity on an intellectual level, and this has left many vulnerable to absurd political doctrines that always strive for “equality”.

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