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Opinion >  Column

Faith and Values: The important distinction between justice and equity

Pete Haug is a guest columnist for Spokane FāVS.   (Spokane FāVS)
Pete Haug is a guest columnist for Spokane FāVS.  (Spokane FāVS)

What, exactly, is “fair?” What is “justice?” Definitions abound but few satisfy. One example, the “principle of moral rightness,” begs more questions. What is “moral?” What is “rightness?”

A recent Faith and Values column called for a “higher standard” that reflects Christ’s teachings so that they become “visible in our own life by the way we show unity and love in a world of division and violence.” Such morality is captured by the golden rule, an ideal found in most religions but rarely realized. Baha’u’llah wrote, “if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.”

Elsewhere he wrote, “The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice.” Justice provides inherent wisdom. It allows us to see with our own eyes “and not through the eyes of others” and know with our own knowledge and not through the knowledge of our neighbors. “Verily justice is My gift to thee,” writes Baha’u’llah, “and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.”

Justice vs. equity

Equity confers a “higher” justice. Often confused with justice, equity “implies a justice that transcends the strict letter of the law.” It is “in keeping with what is reasonable rather than what is merely legal.” Essentially, justice is the letter of the law, equity the spirit of the law.

Justice isn’t always equitable; applying a law equitably seems sometimes impossible, partly because of legal precedents. Is it justice to prosecute a trespasser who can’t read the “No Trespassing” sign? What would be an equitable application of this law?

“Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men … the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations,” Bahá’u’lláh wrote.

‘Abdu’l-Baha observes that humans are created and adorned differently from, and above, other animals. This requires man “to have love and affinity for his own kind, nay rather, to act towards all living creatures with justice and equity.”

Such guidance suggests that human behavior toward all living things, as well as the nonliving elements that support them, should reflect this ethic. Ecosystems provide sustenance, life itself. Is it equitable for some of us to damage and degrade systems that support all of us? We create pollution and greenhouse gases that affect our entire planet. These are not easy questions to resolve, but resolve them we must if we are to avoid further consequences of our reckless behavior.

Manifesting equitable characteristics

A standard of behavior based on justice and equity was described by Shoghi Effendi, grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. He calls for a “rectitude of conduct, with its implications of justice, equity, truthfulness, honesty, fair-mindedness, reliability, and trustworthiness.”

High standards indeed! Yet essential if we are to overcome division and violence. Solving these problems must employ, yet transcend, technological solutions. It will require morality – justice and equity for all sisters and brothers sharing our planet.

It’s unlikely any of us can meet all these standards, yet we can try – even knowing we won’t attain them. Staying aware of such standards is a good beginning. We can bring ourselves to daily account and ask, “How’d I do?” And we can respond truthfully. Maybe resolve to do better.

By doing this, we purify our characters and improve our conduct. The purpose of God’s revelation is “to educate the souls of men, and refine the character of every living man.”

This education begins with parents’ prayers before the birth of each child. It continues as children learn to speak and pray, and to love the Creator. Such love generates a spiritual sense of equity and justice in us all.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, Pete Haug plunged into journalism fresh out of college. That career lasted five years while he reported for a metropolitan daily, edited a rural weekly and worked in industrial and academic public relations. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.

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