Opinion: Equity vs. Equality

Steven Ing, MFT

In George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm, the animals conspire to take control of their farm from the uncaring humans. In the process, they attempt to avoid the typical horrible behavior of humans by making some rules. One of them, famously uttered by the pig Napoleon, changes what was formerly the final rule, “All animals are equal” to, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Is your relationship like this?

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In our money-oriented society, most of us know the word equity to be used in the sense of ownership. For example, after buying publicly traded stock, we have equity in a company or are an “equity partner.”

But here, we are speaking of equity in an older sense of the word to refer to the notion of “fairness.” Usually, once people agree on equality as a mutually held value between two people (or in society), they often mistakenly assume that they have taken care of equity by embracing equality. But simply agreeing that we are of equal value and deserving equal respect does not mean that we’ve established fairness.

The Americans With Disabilities Act attempts to bridge the gap between the two concepts of equality and equity in a much larger context. Even before the ADA, we’d have agreed that someone whose mobility is limited by their need for a wheelchair has an equal 1st Amendment right to speak, an equal right to vote, to own property, and so on.

But even with these rights, have Americans with disabilities always been treated fairly? Looking at the stairs leading to the courthouse steps, one might say that we do have equality since we both have an equal number of steps to climb to access justice, creating an equal burden. But in this simple example, it is clear that we don’t have a mutually fair means of accessing this precious dimension of civic life. Equality without equity is a problem.

Consider the following real-life examples:

  • She says, “His income is our income that we share... but my money is mine, and it goes in my account.”
  • The woman who said, “I know it’s abusive when a man yells at a woman, but when I yell at him, I’m just expressing my feelings.”
  • “Neither one of us should have to have sex if we don’t want it. I can’t help it that he wants sex more than I do. He’ll just have to learn to deal with it.”

None of us have to share our money, embrace a fair notion of an abuse-free relationship, or have sex if we don’t want to. But if these are the sorts of reservations to equality that I’m maintaining, can I really be said to be offering equity? Is this relationship really fair? Even if two individuals have thought about the matter and have decided to embrace something less than equitable or fair, is such a relationship sustainable over time?

Simply put, no. Fairness means both of us can feel good about “the deal,” whatever the deal is. Many of us get into relationships that are so grounded in pathological levels of emotional neediness that we’d make any deal, even one with the devil himself, if such a deal meant that we didn’t have to be alone anymore physically. But fairness (or equity), like equality itself, is an essential part of the end of loneliness. Equity means that you see me as philosophically worthy of equal treatment and as an individual with individual needs that are sometimes different from your own.

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Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the underdeveloped moral code of prepubescent boys, I was always tempted to skew the division of the two pieces, with one being obviously for the bigger of the two of us—me! How’s that for equality without equity?

My mother had other ideas. Every time, just as I began to put the knife to that most delicious last slice, she would say, “OK, so whoever slices the pie, the other gets to pick first.” Talk about a buzz kill! My younger brother was practically rubbing his little hands together in anticipation. The lesson for me ever since is that no matter who’s slicing the pie, the division has to be fair enough that it simply doesn’t matter who gets which piece. Is your relationship (and your thinking) more like the insufferable 11-year-old boy I once was? Or have you learned to have a more just (and mature) view of equity?

Most of us have some room to grow in this area. But accepting that we have room to grow and actually practicing equity are two different things, aren’t they? Therapists play with this a lot when they do role-plays with each spouse playing the other in a recent argument. When you make a case for equity, you’ll impress your guy by showing him you know how to cut the pie fairly.

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I had a seriously messed up childhood. Like, mobster-father-shot-to-death-by-police messed up. Out of this beginning came a lifelong fascination with two questions: “Why do people do what they do?” and “How can all of us figure out how to move to what healthier families enjoy and how they get their needs for love met?” As a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years, I work to help people figure out how they too can have healthy sexuality and intimacy by Managing Sexuality Intelligently™. I have literally written the book on human sexual needs, "We’re All Like This” (Second Edition 2020, Giant Publishing), with portions appearing in the 2nd edition of the McGraw-Hill textbook "Human Sexuality: Self, Society, and Culture," used in university-level human sexuality classes. My books, articles, and public presentations create conversations about human sexuality that are safe...but not too safe. My insights have led to a humane take on our beautiful human sexuality and how all the rest of us can have ridiculously happy lives (yes, and sex lives too!).

Reno, NV
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