The concepts of justice and social equity are as old as human societies themselves. They represent cornerstones of democracy, and although their specific definitions differ, they have evolved together, depend upon one another, and ultimately face similar threats. Justice is a broad concept, and can pertain to both individuals and to societies. It is roughly equated to fairness and right, but carries with it a moral element. Social equity refers to equality within a given group. This can mean equality in distribution, it can mean equality in power and influence, it can mean equality of opportunities, such as affirmative action, or some combination of all of these.
Plato was one of the first scholars to seriously consider the meaning of justice, and he regarded justice as a virtue in individuals. To him, the just individual is someone whose soul is guided by a vision of what is good (Slote, 2010). At the individual level then, justice is motivated by sympathy and morality that goes beyond reason and rationality alone (Slote, 2010). John Rawls famously expands on Plato’s themes of individual justice, positing that societies are mediated by just institutions, which then in turn impose a rational duty of justice on individual members. In this view, justice includes both individual and societal imperatives working simultaneously.
Social equity on the other hand, is a decidedly collective notion. It is primarily concerned with access to the necessities of life, opportunities for advancement, and the distribution of social gains and losses. Equity implies a degree of equality, meaning that all members of society have equal access to these things. Strict Egalitarianism suggests that no matter what, things should be divided evenly amongst members of society, while John Rawls’ Difference Principle allows for variability in distribution, provided the least advantaged would be better off than under strict equality (Lamont & Favor, 2013). Clearly, there are differing ideas about the extent of this equality.
The relationship between justice and social equity is complex and inseparably intertwined. Justice itself may motivate social equity, and conversely social equity must be a central component of any just society. The two go hand in hand, and must therefore be protected from common threats in similar fashion. The greatest threats to justice and to social equity today are uneven power structures. Rigid hierarchies in politics and in the workplace prevent those at the bottom from having a say. Such repressive forms of organization necessarily limit justice and social equity from being realized. The best defense against these threats is a robust and vibrant democracy, complete with strong and just representative institutions, checks and balances, and the ability to effectively redistribute if society so demands it (Fong, 2001, p. 225). This is of course easier to ensure at a national level than across the globe, but if justice and social equity are to exist in society, then they should by definition exist for everyone. Such is the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the two.
Fong, C. (2001). Social preferences, self-interest, and the demand for redistribution. Journal of Public Economics, 82(2), 225-246.
Lamont, J., & Favor, C. (2013). Distributive justice. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/justice-distributive
Slote, M. (2010). Justice as a virtue. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-virtue