Over the years, I’ve seen a number of discussion — in real life and on social media platforms — where the core of the subject is obfuscated by words that are not understood by some of the participants in the discussion. Whether it’s a discussion about autism or about indigenous rights or about social issues or any other emotionally charged subject, the polarization begins when one party insists that another party is saying something completely opposite to what has been said.
Before going any further, I am providing dictionary based definitions of four words that are most often at the heart of the problem: equitable, equal, fair, and just.
What is equitable is what is fair in consideration of the facts and circumstances of the each individual involved in a situation.
What is equal is the same in quantity, size, degree, or value to everyone else involved in a situation.
What is fair is what is appropriate given the set of circumstances for each individual involved in a situation.
And what is just is in accordance with what is morally right and morally fair, what is merited, and conforming to facts and reason.
In order to explain the difference between these four so the words are more clearly understood, let us create a scenario with four imaginary people in it:
1. A 30-year-old woman who is gainfully employed full-time and spends a large part of her income on luxury items instead of paying her bills;
2. A 20-year-old man who is employed part-time but who suffers from serious health issues which requires expensive medication to control;
3. A 10-year old boy whose wage-earning parent was recently fired, and where the family has been evicted for non-payment of rent;and,
4. A 5-year-old girl who, like most children, spends a lot of time expending energy.
Let us create a fifth imaginary person for this scenario whose age is immaterial to the imaginary situation, but who is male because I really don’t want to have to type s/he throughout this explanation. And let us further imagine that the four people are hungry, and that the fifth person has a loaf of bread which he bought a few minutes ago, and that he’s taking back home to his own family.
As he crosses through the park (the fastest way home to the imaginary man’s imaginary house where his imaginary family is waiting for him to arrive with the imaginary loaf of bread), he meets up with the other four, and decides to share the loaf of bread among them. He opens the bag and counts the slices of bread: There are 35 slices in all.
If the man is to do things so they are EQUAL, everyone will receive 7 slices each. Unless, of course, the man wants to consider his wife and four children at home, in which case, what is EQUAL is for everyone is for everyone to receive 3 1/2 slices each. Except that the 10-year-old boy argues that he has two parents and two siblings at home, which means everyone should receive just under 2 slices each. Except that the 5-year-old girl doesn’t like white bread, and the 20-year-old man is unable to eat wheat. It’s difficult to make everything EQUAL for all involved when making everything EQUAL isn’t going to work for everyone.
If the man is to do things so they are EQUITABLE, he will ask each person what has led to them being hungry, and find out what their individual circumstances are. When he hears that the 30-year-old woman is gainfully employed but wastes a great deal of her income on luxury items while ignoring her bills, he may decide that she is capable of providing for herself and therefore should not receive — or expect — any slices of bread from the loaf he’s carrying home. He does, however, believe that the woman would benefit from counseling that addresses the issues behind her extravagant lifestyle she can’t support, and address her budgeting issues.
He may hear that the 20-year-old has medical bills that eat up most of his wages, and that he is unable to secure full-time work because of his health condition. Not only would this 20-year-old benefit from receiving slices of bread, the man decides that he would benefit from being connected to services and supports in the community that will help defray the costs of his medication. He also knows of some programs that provide food to those in need, which the young man is unaware exist. He will share some slices from his loaf with this young man while connecting him to the programs and agencies he knows about.
In speaking with the 10-year-old, he hears how the boy’s wage-earning parent was working not only a full-time job, but took on other jobs to catch up on bills that were piling up. They are now living with friends as a temporary measure, while the wage-earning parent actively looks for work. When asked about the non-wage-earning parent, the boy says that his two siblings are newborn twins and that if the stay-at-home parent went back to work, the child care costs would eat up the second income. The man is aware that subsidized housing has wait lists that are years long, however, he believes that an apartment block near him is still looking for a superintendent. The job pays a monthly wage plus accommodations.
The 5-year-old girl admits that she’s hungry, but she doesn’t want any slices of bread from the loaf. She tells the man that she had a large breakfast and a very good lunch, and that she’s working up an appetite by playing in the park so she can enjoy a healthy meal at supper time. The man agrees with the girl that she doesn’t need any slices of bread from his loaf.
The man’s family relies on him to feed and clothe and house them, and he intends on keeping a portion of the loaf for his own wife and children. He worked hard to earn the money that went to buying this loaf of bread, and not only is this loaf of bread his loaf, but it belongs to his wife and children as well.
If the man is to do thing so they are EQUITABLE, having heard each person’s story, he will do what is FAIR. He will divide the loaf of bread up according to each person’s individual set of circumstances.
And if the man chooses to the FAIR and EQUITABLE thing for each person, he may choose to take one step further and do the JUST thing … which is to provide slices of bread in accordance to each person’s needs, and to do the following as well:
1. To the 30-year-old, he suggests she may want to speak with someone about her financial situation to help her better budget her money. He hopes that she will strongly consider this, and move ahead with finding such a counselor who may be able to convince her that there are other issues she needs to address.
2. To the 20-year-old, he tells him of services and supports in the community that help defray medical costs and provide food to those in need.
3. To the 10-year-old, he writes his name and phone number on a piece of paper, and asks the boy to give this to his parents right away since he might know of a job for the wage-earning parent.
4. To the 5-year-old, he encourages her to continue being a 5-year-old, and comments positively on her honesty to encourage her to continue being honest as she grows older.
From this short scenario, one can see that what is EQUAL is not always FAIR or EQUITABLE or even JUST. And what is FAIR and EQUITABLE, is rarely EQUAL, and being JUST may not be part of it. Being JUST requires a subjective determination that impacts on what is FAIR and EQUITABLE. And so, it’s easy to see how discussions that rely on what is equal or fair or equitable or just sometimes go off the rails.