Equal, or Fair?

Occasionally, I become so strongly convinced of a certain notion that I almost believe that if everyone would just accept it too, all the problems of the world would be solved. Although I’ve lived long enough to know that no such panacea exists, I still sometimes allow a particularly fascinating idea to tempt me in that direction. The one I have found most enticing lately is the distinction between “fair” and “equal.” If only everyone would stop confusing these two concepts, all would be well!



I first became intrigued by these words while one day watching a friend’s two children divide the last piece of pie in the pan. The older reminded the younger that the rule was that one of them cuts the pie and the other gets to choose a piece first. The younger daughter told her sister that she could cut and then explained to me: “If she doesn’t do it even, I get to pick the bigger half. Mom says that’s fair.”

This incident inspired my reflection on the difference between equal and fair. It reminded me of a mother who told me how she had always tried to treat each of her children in the same way. She was questioning if she had done the right thing. Her youngest son, who had serious mental and physical problems, had since died. She had worked hard not to favor him, giving him as little extra attention as possible.

Now she wondered if she should have dealt with him in a different way, since his needs were so much greater and his life span predicted to be short. “I thought that treating him special wouldn’t have been fair to my other children,” she told me, “but he was special.” This woman had mistaken equal for fair.

I think we all sometimes inadvertently make the same mistake. Many systems in our culture are also set up based on a confusion of these two concepts. “Equal pay for equal work” is certainly an accepted standard in our society, but can a system be considered really fair that ignores the difference between one person and six people living on the same wage?

Even in soup kitchens and food pantries that exist to help those who are hungry, the principle of equality sometimes takes precedence over fairness—for example, when the same number of canned goods and potatoes are placed in every bag regardless of the size of the family to be fed.

One of the most obvious examples of confusing equal and fair is the bishops’ recent “zero tolerance” policy regarding clergy sexual abuse. It is certainly fair that priests who abuse children should suffer consequences for their behavior, as should the bishops who were accessories to their crimes. But fair and equal are not the same. Zero tolerance gives equal punishment to all abusers. It takes into account no individual circumstances.

Consider the young priest who has had no sexual experience before ordination and who becomes sexually involved with a teenage boy, realizes his sin, repents and leads an exemplary life for the next 30 years. Is it fair that he is now to be treated in the same way as the pedophile who has a long history of victimizing hundreds of children?

While the behavior of both men is wrong, their situations are quite different. The former priest was immature, sexually naïve and needy; he chose to fulfill his needs in an abusive way. The latter priest is ill; he has a perverted sexual attraction to young children. To mete out equal punishment for two very different crimes is more harsh than civil courts could justifiably inflict. In an attempt to respond to public pressure and, perhaps, to atone for past mistakes, the bishops have, like the mother in the previous story, chosen equal instead of fair. Despite their good intentions, such a choice is a perversion of the justice they are seeking to insure.

Perhaps equality has more to do, after all, with mathematics than with fairness—or with Christianity. Being fair is about justice, about giving and receiving according to need. It is about differences, not likenesses. It takes a lot more thought, a lot more care to be fair than it does to be equal.

The “eye for an eye” mandate from the Old Testament, “a life for a life” decision in our present penal system or the “zero tolerance” policy of the bishops all certainly illustrate the principle of equality. None, however, speaks about what Jesus came to teach us. His message was about giving most to those in greatest need, rather than making certain that some score is evened out. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the decision of the father to throw a banquet at the younger son’s return describes well what fairness means; the elder son understood only equality.

While it is not always easy for us to distinguish what is fair from what is only equal, we, like parents, bishops and judges, are challenged by the Gospel to continue in our attempts to do so. We can be thankful that a fair and merciful God rejoices at our efforts.

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