Equity in its purest form fulfills all the demands of righteousness (which is the highest form of justice). Where the decrees and dictates of justice fall short of that mystical and holy state wherein everything is exactly as it should be – morally, spiritually, divinely – Dame Equity steps in and supplies the missing measure, whether of mercy or of extra provision. So far as this goes, Lady Equity is a beautiful goddess, and seems for the moment to stand even above the lovely maiden known as Mercy. In fact, if we were to cast this whole discussion in allegorical terms, we would see something like this:
In the courtroom of His Honor Judge Justice, a plaintiff is on trial for failing to grab and hold a woman who subsequently leaped to her death from a high bridge. The man had come across the woman teetering on a railing, had tried in the few moments he had available to him to talk her down, but had never reached out to seize her and pull her away from the railing, even though he confessed that he had clearly seen that the woman was turning and preparing to jump. Why had he not made the effort, Judge Justice demands? Dumbstruck, the plaintiff offers no explanation.
But Lady Equity speaks up. She explains to the court that the plaintiff was raised never to touch a woman, and had been threatened his entire life, by his father, with promises of the most violent beatings, if he ever laid a hand on a woman. This prohibition had been driven into the young man’s head day after day, by a father who had obviously lost his mind years before. So deeply had this threat of extreme punishment for touching a woman sunk into the plaintiff’s mind, that he could hardly even bring himself to pass near a lady, or to cast his eyes on one, even in the most innocent of circumstances. All of this the shy, troubled, underdeveloped, nearly mute young man had been unable to explain to the court.
Dame Equity, as a friend of the court, explains everything in detail, and supplies the factors that had been missing in the judge’s honest attempt to weigh matters judiciously. The plaintiff may not stand now completely absolved of guilt, but in the interest of both justice and equity, the sentence laid down against him is reduced to an almost negligible penalty. Maid Mercy, kneeling in a shadowy corner of the courtroom, with folded hands, praying for the young man, bursts into a sob of joyfulness at hearing the news.
But the appeal of equity is dangerous for the very same reason that the appeal of sentiment, or mere sensation, is dangerous: a good quality anchored in the heart – or which makes its strongest appeal to the heart – is inclined to excess. It tempts into overindulgence those who pursue it. As with the practice of charity and mercy, it can create too much self-satisfaction and sweet self-approval for those whose right hands are far too preoccupied with what their left hands are doing. Self-reflection, or preening self-regard, in this case, is fatal.
There is a very good reason why we are told in Scripture not to pat ourselves on the back for our good deeds: not only does it lead to egotism and pride, but it can addict us to practicing a form of equity that is injurious to society at large – a form in which we are forever excusing faults that are not excusable, justifying behavior unrooted in any claim to mercy, and seeing rationalizations for acts that any objective person would understand to be punishable, regardless of any specious defense. And the ill consequences to society of untrammeled “equityism” are, one hopes, all too apparent.