So, there is this image going around showing equality vs. justice in a convenient people standing on crates to watch a baseball game over the fence format. http://www.shermanswilderness.org/employment-non-discrimination-is-a-spiritual-and-human-rights-issue/equality-vs-justice/
Unfortunately, the image is not correct. The image actually portrays equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity means that each of us has the same opportunities presented to us and it is up to us to decide which we will undertake and how much effort we will put into each. This may result unequal outcomes, but at least we had the same chances and any (most?) difference is on the choices we make. Equality of outcome means that regardless of the randomness of life’s inequalities we, as a society, choose to redress the imbalance and make sure we all get the same stuff.
Justice is more ephemeral. For most of us, justice means people getting what they deserve. In its simplest form, justice means getting what you work for. Injustice isn’t just not getting what you work for, but also other people getting what you did work for without the work. As an example, if I were to go to the effort to buy good beer for Easter dinner, drop it off at my uncle’s place the night before Easter and then arrive the next day to find all of my cousins enjoying the beer I bought but that none is left for me, that would be injustice (I’m still a bit bitter about this incident).
In principle, no one in the United States is seriously arguing against either equality of opportunity or justice – at least, no one with any kind of a political future. Equality of opportunity and justice tend to be centerpieces of conservative rhetoric, with the implicit conclusion that the people who have more made the most of their opportunities and deserve what they have. And, of course the converse conclusion that people who have less either chose a lesser path or somehow deserve what they got (e.g. they are lazy or criminal).
Unfortunately, this denies the role of chance in life, starting at birth. Want a successful life? Regardless of how you define ‘successful’, the best thing you can do to improve your chances is choose your parents well. Certainly, there are people who have overcome great adversity to achieve success. But there are many more who have achieved success without any particular adversity at all (myself included).
To be sure, hard work certainly plays a role in success. One can debate endlessly the role of chance vs. the role of hard work – a debate I will not continue here beyond to say that both play a role in almost all of life’s outcomes. However, if one is successful, it does the ego no end of good to assume that you have it because you deserve it – justice has been rendered. If you admit the role of chance, then you admit that perhaps your success is not deserved, a notion that does not sit well with the ego. (As an aside, this sometimes goes to the perversion of people suggesting that they deserve lucky outcomes because they are lucky people – a notion which is almost entirely self serving, not too far removed from ‘I deserve it because I want it.’)
In contrast, those of a more liberal leaning tend to argue more in favor of equality of outcome. Recognizing the role of chance in outcomes, it is desirable that we should redress the imbalance of chance between individuals. While few would dispute the principle, the practical outcome essentially assumes that those with more have been lucky, while those with less have been unlucky. Therefore, we must take something from the fortunate and give it to the unfortunate. Rob from the rich and give to the poor. Unsurprisingly, this notion is rather popular among the poor. If you have not been successful, it does the ego no end of good to assume that you don’t have it because of bad luck or (better yet) it was unjustly stolen from you. If you admit that hard work plays a role, then you admit that perhaps your situation is deserved, a notion that does not sit well with the ego.
For the purposes of justice, it would be awesome if we could magically determine what each person deserves and resolve the issue on that basis. Unfortunately, we cannot, so we are stuck with a series of arguments that go like this: “I deserve this.” “No, you don’t. Give me some.” “I worked hard.” “You’re a thief.” “You’re lazy.” “Gimme.” “No.” Neither side is truly right, but neither side is truly wrong, so we take a guess and hope for the best.
As a final note, I would like to make an observation about equality of opportunity. While this principle seems simple in concept, the fact is that it is not simple in application. Leaving aside the issue of any birth defects or genetic illnesses you might have, one simply cannot prevent the rich from buying better opportunity for their kids. Having said that, I find the current conservative positions concerning child care and education inconsistent with their principles of equality of opportunity. If you really want equality of opportunity, then you should want to add opportunity to children whose parents cannot provide much opportunity. If you don’t then you aren’t in favor of equality of opportunity, but rather perpetuation of what is. I suppose that is the true definition of conservative – a desire for no change.