Thinking About Justice and Equality

Martha’s Minow’s discussion in her essay, Making all The Difference (Braveman, 1995, pp. 91-106) concerning the Pregnancy Discrimination Act sheds some light on our own thought processes that may either hinder or contribute to situations of justice.  In this essay, Minow noted the need for clear definitions of terms used and also the consideration of many perspectives when attempting to consider situations of justice/injustice.

Minow wrote that when considering how pregnancy relates to sex-discrimination in the workplace, debates arose over the definition of the term discrimination.  Was discrimination really differential treatment? If so, then favorable treatment toward pregnant women would be a form of discrimination, too. She explained that from one perspective, “any distinction on the basis of sex – would perpetuate the negative stereotypes long used to demean and exclude women” while another perspective considered was that “denying the facts of pregnancy and the needs of new mothers could only hurt women; treating women like men in the workplace violated demands of equality (Bender and Braveman, 1995, p. 96).”

This last statement concerning ‘violating demands of equality’ is another important aspect of justice that needs to be considered. What exactly does the term equality mean in a world that is filled with different people, all having different backgrounds, cultures and histories, and different body types, different experiences, and different ways of understanding their world, etc?

Perhaps when the term equality is used, there should also be a definition offered. Equality may be thought of in many different ways.  Conley (2011) described four standards of equality:

  • Ontological Equality, or ‘the notion that everyone is created equal in the eyes of God”
  • Equality of Condition, which is “the idea that everyone should have an equal starting point”
  • Equality of Opportunity, which is “the idea that inequality of condition is acceptable so long as the rules of the game, so to speak, remain fair”
  • Equality of Outcome, which is a “position that argues each player must end up with the same amount regardless of the fairness of the ‘game’ (pp. 234-238)”

When I consider the above definitions (and I know that there are many more), I am left wondering if ‘equality’ is even something that ought to be considered.  I think that perhaps, instead, the real issue at hand is one of justice – which is a completely different matter.

In her essay, Minow also described how California’s pregnancy disability leave statute addressed this issue as one of attempting to achieve justice – by using a different measure of ‘equality’ than what had previously been considered. Under this statute, men, as well as women, were extended (comparable) benefits following maternity or pregnancy leaves.  It was necessary to change one’s perspective and to use women as the reference to which ‘others’ were to be compared in order to resolve the conflict and achieve justice. (Thank you Justice Marshall!)

What I find most interesting in this story is that there existed an unstated assumption that women should be compared to men (but not the other way around), until Justice Marshall ruled otherwise.

Sometimes we may find it very difficult to even ‘see’ alternative ways of thinking.

Matthew 13:15
New American Standard Bible (NASB)

For the heart of this people has become dull,
With their ears they scarcely hear,
And they have closed their eyes,
Otherwise they would see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart and return,
And I would heal them.


Bender, L., & Braveman, D. (1995). Power, privilege, and law : A civil rights reader. St. Paul, Minn.: West Pub. Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.

Conley, D. (2011). You may ask yourself : An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Retrieved from Library of Congress or OCLC Worldcat.


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