What Is Equity?

If you have been paying attention to the cultural discussions current in the West, if you have children in school or are aware of the sorts of discussions that are occurring in schools boards or classrooms across the USA you have heard discussions about and much use of the noun equity. It is often joined to other words to form compounds, e.g., “social equity,” “educational equity.” It has become increasingly clear, however, that there are competing definitions of this word.

The definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary give us a baseline:

  1. The quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality; even-handed dealing.
  2. What is fair and right; something that is fair and right. rarely in plural.
  3. In jurisprudence: The recourse to general principles of justice (the naturalis æquitas of Roman jurists) to correct or supplement the provisions of the law. equity of a statute: the construction of a statute according to its reason and spirit, so as to make it apply to cases for which it does not expressly provide.

Our English word is derived from the Latin abstract noun aequitas, which Lewis and Short define briefly thus, “The uniform relation of one thing to others, equality, conformity, symmetry.” It is abstracted from the adjective, aequus, which can mean a variety of things (e.g., plain, level) but in an ethical or legal context signals “just.”  The editors of the OED note:

The Latin æquitas was somewhat influenced in meaning by being adopted as the ordinary rendering of Greek ἐπιείκεια…which meant reasonableness and moderation in the exercise of one’s rights, and the disposition to avoid insisting on them too rigorously. An approach to this sense is found in many of the earlier English examples.

One use of equity which communicates the older understanding would be the sentence: “She expected equity under the law.” By that what was meant is that every citizen expects to be treated equally before the law, that the laws of the land would be executed without regard to a person’s social status, wealth, ethnicity, etc. That is the American ideal. When people used to speak of “equality before the law” they were talking about equity.

Under the influence of critical theory, however, the noun equity is frequently used with a rather different sense. Consider this definition published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

Equity is defined as “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.” The concept of equity is synonymous with fairness and justice. It is helpful to think of equity as not simply a desired state of affairs or a lofty value. To achieve and sustain equity, it needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.

The two parts of the definition are traditional. The last part, however, tips the balance towards a redefinition. Equity no longer refers to a equal treatment before an objective standard but to “structural and systemic” changes necessary to “achieve and sustain equity.” Under the tradition definition, a judge either practiced equity or she did not. Now, equity is a social outcome, the result of a process.

“Outcomes” is a term that appears frequently in definitions of equity that are influenced by critical theory. The traditional definition considered equity a process. The new definition concerns social and economic outcomes.

The question of the definition of equity arose last week as I have been working through Ursinus’ lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism and I was considering his account of equity as a virtue:

VIII. EQUITY, which is a virtue that mitigates, in view of some just and probable cause, the rigor of strict justice in punishing and correcting the errors of others; and which endures with patience such defects as do not seriously injure and endanger the safety of our fellow-men, whether publicly or privately, and which studiously covers and corrects such vices whenever they are found in others. “Servants be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.” (1 Pet. 2:18.) We may here also appropriately cite the example of the sons of Noah, as recorded in the ninth chapter of Genesis, and likewise the commandment of the apostle Paul, respecting the moderation and gentleness which parents should exercise towards their children in correcting them: “Fathers provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” “Fathers provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” “Masters give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.” (Eph. 6:4. Col. 3:21; 4:1.)
The opposite of this virtue embraces, 1. Immoderate rigor in censuring and reproving those faults which proceed for the most part from infirmity, without any serious injury, either to their own, or others’ safety. 2. Too great lenity, which shows itself in not punishing or reproving great and aggravated sins. 3. Flattery, which, for the sake of gaining popularity or advancing personal interests, praises that which ought not to be praised, or attributes more to a certain one than is becoming.1

The first thing that struck me about Ursinus’ approach to equity is that he thought of it as a virtue. The second thing that one notices, in light of our current discussions, is that he characterizes this virtue in roughly the same way Calvin characterized clemency. We could almost substitute mercy. Equity is exercised in light of or in view of some objective, rigorous standard. He is thinking about the law, which says “do this and live” or “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Equity mitigates the outcome of the application of the law. It bears with errors and is patient with defects.

According to Ursinus, equity is neither harsh nor lenient. It does not provoke children but rears them wisely, firmly but mercifully. One opposite of equity is “immoderate rigor.” That caught my attention because when I read and hear advocates of the critical definition of equity I hear immoderate rigor. I hear and read the opposite of equity. Another opposite of equity is leniency. Consider the decision to grant parole to Sirhan Sirhan, the man who murdered Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The media has presented the case as if Kennedy’s children support the release into the public of a political assassin and murderer. According to Debra J. Sanders, an old-school reporter who now publishes on Substack, reports that 6 of the 9 Kennedy children opposed the parole of their father’s murderer. Indeed, Sirhan was fortunate to be alive since his death sentence was overturned in 1972, after the death penalty was briefly struck down by the California Supreme Court. Voters here repeatedly disagreed with the justices. In this case, the crazed District Attorney of Los Angeles County (if you think crazed is hyperbolic, you do not live in California or are not paying attention) refused to send an assistant DA to speak against Sirhan’s parole. By the classical understanding of equity, Sirhan’s parole is inequitable. Equity before the law requires a confessed and convicted assassin at least to live out his days behind bars but under the re-definition perhaps Sirhan must be released because of the systemic inequity? After all, Sirhan was a Palestinian, who was angry at Kennedy for his support for the state of Israel, which advocates of critical theory regard as part of an oppressive system.

You see how this works now, right? Once equity is a matter of systems and outcomes, the process is no longer in view and objective standards are moot. Up has become down and, left has become right, and night has become day.

The word of the day is Aequitas (pronounced, ay-qwee-tas).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.



1. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 582–83.

One comment

  1. The word “equity” these days is used to mask the watershed switch of “equal outcome” for “equal opportunity” before or under the law. As such it means the conservative American revolution of 1775 -83 understanding of equality has now become that of the radical French Jacobin revolution of 1789 – 94. Not good.

    The conceptual substitution is necessary to sell, if not justify or excuse socialist totalitarianism, because force by the state and its actors is the only way to get equal results in the real world. Which is exactly how the the Russian and Chinese revolutions following the French, also played out whatever their supposedly idealistic goals.

    Ours today, has a racial flavor as well as socioeconomic and political, but the end results will be the same if the country buys into what the word really stands for by those who throw it around with such self righteous abandon.

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