Equality, Justice and Equity - World Bioethics Day 2017 Theme Essay Competition - First Position

Equality, Justice and Equity


The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal. 
(Aristotle)

Justice cannot be for one side alone but must be for both. 
(Eleanor Roosevelt)

Ethics and equity and the principles of justice do not change with the calendar.
 (DH Lawrence)

The genesis of equality and equity as a concept of social justice arose from a history of evolving philosophies of societal organization and distribution of human rights, responsibilities and services.  The principles of equity and equality are always relevant in the context of distributive justice as well as variety of social justice issues. These principles all appeal the idea that fair treatment is a matter of giving people what they deserve. In general, people deserve to be rewarded for their effort and productivity, punished for their transgressions, treated as equal persons, and have their basic needs met. However, because these principles may come into conflict, it is often difficult to achieve these goals simultaneously. The central theories underlying the equity paradigm follow, providing a theoretical background for the concept of equality and justice and its relevance in today’s highly unequal world.



According to the principle of equity, a fair system is one that distributes opportunities to individuals in proportion to their input. While input comes in the form of productivity, ability or talent might also play a big role. People who produce more or better products either by working harder or by being more talented, should be paid more for their efforts than should people who produce less. In addition, the idea that justice requires the unequal treatment of unequals is in tension with the principle of equality. This principle of egalitarianism suggests that the fairest allocation is one that distributes benefits and burdens equally among all humans. It may seem to be a simple matter of common sense that justice is central to any well-functioning society. However, the question of what justice is, and how it is achieved are more difficult matters. The principles of justice and fairness point to ideas of fair treatment and "fair play" that should govern all modes of exchange and interaction in a society.
The constitutional perspective on equality, namely, equal rights and freedom under a rule of law has been eroded as the redistributive state has grown. Equality has come to mean equal outcomes and “equal opportunity,” in the sense of equal starting positions, rather than equal rights under rule of law. In this era, equality of rights has been crowded out by equality of outcome; equal opportunity has been turned on its head. Consequently, the constitutional perspective with its emphasis on ordered liberty, equal rights, and a just rule of law has been seriously eroded.

The notion of equality is central to any discussion of justice and equity. The constitutional perspective sees natural rights to life, liberty, and property as being self-evident and prior to the institution of government. In this world of consistent rights, everyone can enjoy whichever of his rights he chooses to enjoy at the same time and in the same respect that everyone else does. Just as equality of rights and equality of outcome are inconsistent usages, so too are the twin usages of equal opportunity just noted. Extending equal opportunity to everyone violates no one’s rights. Thus, in the absence of any positive welfare rights, the set of rights stemming from the basic right to noninterference is a world of consistent and equal rights, “a world in which we can at all times enjoy whichever exemplifications of our right to noninterference we choose to enjoy, subject only to the restrictions we incur as a result of our own actions”.

On the contrary, equity refers to a set of legal principles, in jurisdictions following the common law tradition, which supplement strict rules of law where their application would operate harshly. Where the law is found to be essentially correct but proving to be too severe or unfair, the equity system serves to allow for a different course of events in the judicial world. Equity essentially does not contradict the common law, but rather it aims at securing substantial justice when the rule of common law might see injustice. The most significant distinction that exists between the two systems is based on the remedies that each offers. In the common law, decisions are made by reference to existing legal doctrines or statutes, whereas in the equity system, the emphasis is laid on fairness and flexibility, which are known as the maxims of equity. The equitable remedies can be only dispensed by a judge as it is a matter of law. Another important distinction between equity and common law lies in the source of the rules governing the decisions that are made in each of the systems
There is a consensus in the literature that an equity approach signifies development aimed at reaching the most marginalized and deprived populations first, in contrast to the objective of reaching only greater quantities of people. Key international organizations like the World Bank and UNICEF utilize the concept of equity prominently in their work and refer to it explicitly in their reports and strategies. Some view the equity approach as a response to growing inequalities and a way to address those left out of the “low hanging fruit” approach for which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are sometimes criticized. The current dialogue around equity revolves predominantly around how equity is measured. One school holds that increasing equality of opportunity, or equal access to services, is enough. Others argue that equity should be measured according to outcomes, or the results of how groups of people actually fare in life. Either way, an equity approach entails addressing the specific deprivations of the marginalized societies.


The worst-off people should be prioritized and be given extra weight in the distribution of goods and services. “Prioritarianism” as it is coined by Arneson, is complemented by the concept of the “level playing field” idea promoted by Ronald Dworkin and John Roemer. This concept holds that society should strive to provide services for those people that are excluded from candidate pools for jobs, to equalize or “level the playing field”. Equity aims to address this dynamic through a targeted action for the most disadvantaged groups. It is concerned with fairness and social justice and aims to focus on a concern for people’s needs, instead of providing services that reach the greatest number of people. It promotes investing in the transmission of services to people who need them most.
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In a nutshell, despite the critiques from different ideological positions and ambiguities in our understandings about equality, equity and justice, there seems to be a move towards creating more comprehensive concepts with explicit focus on equity and social justice, presence of more diverse critical voices and increased interest in the intersectionalities of differences and their contextualized manifestations.

It is not possible to talk about justice without a mention of social equity and equality. In a similar way, it is not possible to talk about social equity and equality without the mention of justice. In broad terms, a just society entails an equal treatment and the right to use to resources for every human regardless of their status. While justice is concerned with the social institutions, social equity is the fair and just mode of how those institutions function.

Justice has always evoked ideas of equality, of proportion, of compensation. Equity signifies equality. Rules and regulations, rights and righteousness are concerned with equality in value. If all are equal then all are of the same essence and common essence entitles same fundamental rights, equity and justice. In short, justice is another name of balance between equality, equity, liberty and fraternity. The conflicting views of Equality, Justice and Equity have as much relevance today as they did in time. Understanding their ramifications is essential for the maintenance of a free society.



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