Today "equity" is a commonly mentioned political value. For example, in Kansas the state supreme court found school funding unconstitutional partially because it was not equitable to school districts. Arguments in favor of equity can be found in a variety of policy areas such as education, medicine, law enforcement, and others.

I'm not sure I could completely define equity, but it seems to me that it is a notion of fairness that recognizes that each person (or entity) has a different background. So it's different from equality (a kind of fairness where everyone is given identical treatment) in that it recognizes that in some cases fairness requires treating people differently.

Within political theory (not public political thought), when did equity become an important moral topic?

  • I think I need a little more hint about what exactly you mean and don't mean. Sharing food as needed is older than humans; rationing to give juveniles a fair share is a very similar concept.
    – user9389
    Jul 6 '18 at 22:38
  • @notstoreboughtdirt I hope I covered that in the last sentence. "Within political theory..." - I'm not interested in any empirical case study. I'm interested in the concept of equity and when it became important within political theory (philosophy). Jul 6 '18 at 22:40
  • I'm suggesting that how much you ought to share has been an issue long before history. If I'm not too far off the mark the earliest answer will be Greeks just because we don't understand much from before that.
    – user9389
    Jul 6 '18 at 22:41
  • @notstoreboughtdirt They had a practical concern about how to share food, but that isn't the same as philosophy. This question on Phil.SE has some interesting ideas on what constitutes philosophy. A common thread seems to be the reliance on critical examination of ideas, assumptions, and arguments. So the problem of distributing food does not imply the existence of a moral philosophy of equity. Jul 6 '18 at 22:48
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    I think this is a really interesting topic, but in its current context, may be more appropriate as a Philosophy question. I couldn't answer this question without bringing up numerous philosophers and their views since politics is "downstream" from philosophy in most respects.
    – blud
    Jul 6 '18 at 23:24

One reason for the popularity of equity arguments in the American political culture is that the 14th Amendment (enacted shortly after the U.S. Civil War) to the United States Constitution creates a binding, individually enforceable, legal obligation for governments to provide "equal protection" under the law to all persons. The legally enforceable dimension of this argument makes it a powerful one compared to norms that are not enshrined in the Constitution and hence are incapable over overcoming other laws to the contrary.

Equal protection arguments are usually framed as a mandate to treat similarly situated people equitably.

For example, in unequal school funding cases, both the equal protection clause, invoked, for example in the California case of Serrano v. Priest (1971) was brought as an equal protection case, while the Kansas case linked in the OP primarily relies on state constitutional guarantees of education but is also informed by equal protection requirements, and in terms of legal and political theory is drawing on the same body of thought about what it means to treat students equally.

I would dispute the characterization of the Kansas case as providing relief because "it was not equitable to school districts." It would be more accurate to say that "the Kansas education funding system was not treating school districts equitably," which does not really mean the same thing.

Equity as fairness in a one on one relationship between the two parties, while an older legal and political concept, if anything, is on the decline of an idea with philosophical currency and popularity relative to "equity" in the sense of treating people who are similarly situated the same. The former calls for an invocation of a natural rights means of political reasoning that is falling out of favor as legal positivism (i.e. the idea that legal obligations arise solely because an authoritative source decrees that the obligation exists rather than existing Platonically even in the absence of an authoritative imposition of that obligation) grows as a fundamental assumption of legal scholars, since equity in the sense of equality, rooted as it is in a broad enforceable legal standard with authoritative backing is a kind of idea that can be more powerfully advanced. "Equity" in the sense of fairness in a one on one relationship, in contrast, undermines the power of people with authority by having a separate source for binding obligations which people with authority have, naturally enough, disfavored.

For example, suppose that a school districts has funds left over at year end. An "equal protection" notion of "equity" might call for those funds to return to the state because if a school district has excess funds left over at year end, it doesn't need those funds as badly as schools that use up all of their funds and still can't meet their needs. But, a one on one relationship notion of "equity" associated with fairness might conclude that a district that is thrifty ought to be rewarded for their thrift and allowed to keep the funds left over at year end.

Desegregation cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and its predecessors at the higher educational level were likewise formulate as cases about treating students equitably in education without regard to race (superseding the reasoning of Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal treatment was feasible as a practical matter, but giving lip service to the need to have equal treatment, even if it was separate, even then). Large bodies of equal protection law are described as "gender equity" and "language equity" cases.

Court litigation of constitutional rights, however, was very uncommon until the early 1900s and the equal protection clause was not widely litigated until the 1940s as a tactic of the early Civil Rights movement.

I'm not sure I could completely define equity, but it seems to me that it is a notion of fairness that recognizes that each person (or entity) has a different background. So it's different from equality (a kind of fairness where everyone is given identical treatment) in that it recognizes that in some cases fairness requires treating people differently.

The notion of "equal protection" under the 14th Amendment has never meant a kind of fairness where everyone is given identical treatment, even when their circumstances are different in a relevant way. This concept of "equity" is more concerned with preventing improper distinctions being made than with substantively making treatment equal.

For example, no one under an "equal protection" version of "equity" analysis would ever suppose that school funding should be the same for all school districts regardless of how many students that they have, the number of students is a relevant difference.

On the other hand, "equity" in the sense of "equal outcomes" as opposed to "equal treatment given the relevant circumstances" has never had much currency as an implemented legal or political goal, although it is sometimes used rhetorically in contexts where the speaker is implying that the differences which are considered aren't relevant ones.

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    @indigochild The sense in which "equity" is used in the OP is in the sense of "equal protection" and the value of equality. In the law, "equity" has a very different sense which refers to the procedures and substantive rules of the chancery court in England as of 1776 and law arising from that foundation, so the word "equity" is not used in the sense of the OP in most legal writing and discussions to avoid confusion. Thus, it makes sense that "14th amendment equity" wouldn't show up as a fruitful search term. The OP is not using the word "equity" in that sense of the term, however.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 7 '18 at 0:26
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    @indigochild Duh! I'll try to expand upon it.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 7 '18 at 0:31
  • -1 Think the OP is more is concerned about equal outcomes, think disparate impact analysis, that are the cornerstone of things like Affirmative Action, which is diametrically opposite the goals of the 14th Amendment.
    – user9790
    Jul 9 '18 at 12:51

I believe what you are describing is more akin of insisting that equal outcomes is a desirable and achievable policy end. For example, if a group of citizens identifiable by race, creed, sex, or other characteristic performs poorly, is arrested more often, is awarded fewer employment slots or government benefit, the underlying reason has to be racism, sexism, or some other social pathology rather than personal preparation and responsibility, genetics, economic, or some other factor. If the reason a favored class is blocked is a social pathology, it is the government's responsibility to correct. This is known as disparate impact theory, and animates much of the progressive social platform. Ballotpedia explains it thusly, as well as starting right in the middle of the Great Society, as one would expect with most of the progressive experiments.

Disparate impact is a legal theory of discrimination liability that holds employers, housing authorities, and other entities accountable for practices that have discriminatory effects on groups protected under anti-discrimination laws, even when there is no intent to discriminate. This differs from disparate treatment, in which the discrimination is overt and intentional. Disparate impact cases have commonly been brought under three pieces of civil rights legislation:

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967,
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and
  • Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act).

Though the United States Supreme Court first validated disparate impact theory in 1971, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been a consistent defender of the theory since it began operating in 1966. Later rulings by the court weakened the disparate impact argument, such as Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio. The theory has remained controversial, since some argue it conflicts with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides for equal treatment under the law.[1][2][3]

The methods that the government employs to level the playing field are extra funding (welfare, housing, school funding) or tax breaks (enterprise zones), zoning, quotas, decriminalization and relaxation of standards, and other forms of favoritism. In your question, this is how you treat people differently under the law.

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    The first half of this answer is good, the second half is a rant I'd consider removing for the sake of neutrality
    – Gramatik
    Jul 9 '18 at 14:12
  • @Gramatik thought people would be interested in the efficacy of such programs, but removed nonetheless.
    – user9790
    Jul 9 '18 at 14:24
  • This first paragraph is somewhat contradictory. It claims to discuss 'equal outcome' but then describes theories and philosophies that have led to equal opportunity legislation. Semantics, perhaps.
    – user1530
    Jul 9 '18 at 17:01
  • @blip More correctly, they led from them, relied on them as a jumping off point, which often created out of whole cloth new rules or changed the language to meet a predetermined outcome. Note that this is just the jurisprudence and not policy outcomes sought by progressive administrations.
    – user9790
    Jul 9 '18 at 17:11

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