From Legislation to the Heart: Evolutionary Challenge of Equality and True Fairness

article photo an united states founding father writing on parchment paper with a ink pen by Dr. Sam Goldstein

Grasping the nuanced difference between fairness and equality, two pivotal concepts often discussed in the context of social justice and democracy, is a crucial first step in crafting policies that address the unique needs of individuals while striving for a balanced society. This understanding equips us to navigate the intricate terrain of distributing rights, opportunities, and resources in society, fostering a sense of insight and empowerment.

Let's break it down. Equality means everyone gets the same thing, like a pair of shoes. But what if your feet aren’t like everyone else.? That's where fairness, or equity, comes in. It's about giving you a more tailored pair of shoes to meet your needs. It's about acknowledging that we're not all the same, and that's okay.

Currently, the concept of equity is stirring up a lot of heated discussion. Equity is about recognizing that only some start from the same place. Some people might need more help or a head start because they are disadvantaged. Programs focused on DEI aim to support these people differently to ensure everyone succeeds, no matter where they started.

But is this always fair? What if the initial advantage given to someone results in them being in a position where they cannot succeed? For example, some college admission policies try to compensate for past inequalities by boosting some students with lower achievement. While this might seem like an excellent way to make things equal, it raises questions about whether it's fair to everyone including them.

In this month's article, I examine what fairness, equity, and equality mean to me, how they affect decisions like college admissions and whether the steps we're taking toward equity in DEI initiatives might be moving us away from true fairness and equality. It's a tricky balance, ensuring everyone gets what they need to thrive while treating everyone equally.

The U.S. Constitution has changed 27 times throughout its history, with many of these changes focusing on making things equal and fair for everyone. One of the early changes that made a big difference was ending slavery (13th Amendment). This set the stage for more changes, like ensuring everyone born or naturalized in the U.S. has citizenship and equal rights under the law (14th Amendment). Also, voting rights have been expanded over the years. They stopped denying the vote based on race, color, or past slavery (15th Amendment), allowed women to vote (19th Amendment), eliminated poll taxes that made it hard for some people to vote (24th Amendment), and lowered the voting age to 18 (26th Amendment) so younger people could vote, too. All these changes show how the U.S. has worked to be fairer and include more people in democracy.

The 14th Amendment and policies like affirmative action are significant steps in the U.S.'s efforts towards equality. These actions, along with laws about keeping the environment safe and making companies act responsibly, are ways the government tries to correct past wrongs and make society more equal. The need for these policies shows that unfair practices and structures were responsible for inequality. Starting these policies was a way to acknowledge and fix these problems, moving towards a more equal society.

Society created these rules because they recognize life's ongoing unfairness and inequalities. These unfair practices would likely continue if nothing were done, making things worse for many people. This realization led to laws and policies designed to make things even for everyone. However, while necessary, these steps show a big difference: even though the law treats everyone equally, everyone ends up with unfair outcomes in real life.

Fairness is about more than treating everyone the same though. It's about looking at different people and groups' needs and trying to meet them. This way of thinking about fairness means understanding that not everyone starts from the same place and that treating everyone the same only sometimes leads to fair results. This idea is discussed in our book "Tenacity in Children ". This more profound understanding of fairness recognizes people's different challenges and goals, and it's about seeing each other as humans in a more caring and understanding way, something that seems simple but is often lost in our complex world.

DEI initiatives are not just about closing the gap between fairness and equality. They are about creating spaces where everyone's differences are celebrated, past unfairness is rectified, and everyone has the opportunity to contribute. This optimistic vision should inspire hope and optimism in our journey towards a fairer society.

The belief that society should strive for fairness and equality is a testament to our noblest aspirations. It originates from recognition of past injustices and the complex task of crafting rules that cater to the needs of our diverse world. The pursuit of fairness is a constant endeavor, a testament to our care for others, our adaptability, and our unwavering commitment to what's morally right, not just what's legally mandated.

From our earliest days, humans have been wired to survive, a trait that didn't always align with fairness; when food and resources were scarce, ensuring enough for oneself and one's family often necessitated fierce competition. This survival instinct, deeply ingrained in us, leads us to favor situations that directly benefit us. Even in our modern world, where abundance is the norm, this primal instinct continues to shape our perception of fairness, often leading us to prioritize our or our group's interests.

Our tendency to favor our group, commonly known as 'in-group bias,' poses a significant challenge in our quest for fairness. Breaking free from this and other deeply ingrained habits that drive us to act in our self-interest is no easy task. We also grapple with a 'self-serving bias,' where we perceive outcomes that benefit us as fair, even when they may not be fair to everyone. To establish true fairness, we must remain empathetic and uphold justice, even if it means setting aside our gains.

While we've made good progress in making laws to promote equality, moving towards true fairness— a more personal and caring approach to justice—in my view, progress has been slow. Along the way, many extreme efforts to promote diversity or equity have missed the mark on fairness, often causing new problems instead of solving current problems. The difference between fairness and equality isn't just wordplay; it demonstrates the complex nature of human society and the hard work needed to deal with these complexities. Fairness is not just a value; it's a cornerstone of a just and equitable society, and its importance in DEI initiatives cannot be overstated.

When applied correctly, DEI initiatives aren't giving up on fairness; they're moving us towards a more welcoming and fair society where equality isn't just something written down but something everyone feels. The urgency of this shift is evident—acting now is crucial to prevent widening societal gaps and to continue building fairness across our communities. Simultaneously, addressing equality and fairness can pave the way for a future that upholds everyone's dignity and worth, preventing conflicts and maintaining societal cohesion. This task is demanding, yet accelerating our efforts is essential to safeguard the health and unity of our society. It's time to consider replacing the "Equity" in DEI with "Equality" and introduce "Fairness" into the mix. Let's strive for DEIF – Diversity, Equality, Inclusion, and Fairness. Given the frenzy around some extreme, even irrational, DEI policy promotions, the critical importance of this shift for the immediate and long-term health of our society cannot be overstated. ◆