Knowing the Right Thing to Do
3 William’s neighbors, however, were outraged. “No fair!” they
cried. They knew William had paid his rent on time for 5 years. William
was an upstanding citizen and responsible father of 11. He was late
with this payment, even after traveling day and night, because spring
rains had washed out the bridges William usually crossed to deliver his
rent. The community festered over the judge’s “cold-hearted” decision.
Word reached the king.
To head off situations like this, the king took action. He created a
Chancery Court in London, where controversial cases like William’s
could be appealed (Kerly, 1890). If justice was not served by the legal
decision, the case could be reviewed by a different standard of fairness.
The king appointed the ecclesiastical member of his cabinet to preside
in this new appeals court to add a tone of moral “rightness” to the po-
sition. The king’s appointed adjudicator was called “chancellor,” not
“judge.” The chancellor of this new court could take into account all the
individual circumstances of the aggrieved. If the chancellor decided
the facts in the case were compelling, the Law Court’s ruling could be
overturned. The equity chancellor overturned the Law Court’s decision and re-
turned the property to William for having made a “good-faith effort”
(traveling night and day) in the face of an “act of God” (flooding). Act-
ing on William’s claim, the chancellor used an artful decision-making
process, drawing from an alternative definition of fairness. To this day,
phrases like “good-faith effort” and “act of God” have been passed
down from original Equity Court decisions.
From reversals like those in William’s case, the “spirit of the
law” became legitimized as an official decision-making process
(Blackstone & Cooley, 2003). Decisions could be equally well made
on a case-by-case basis, taking into account each person’s individual
circumstances. Letter-of-the-Law Standard for Fairness
Are you finding yourself more in alignment with the reasoning of
the Law Court judge or the case-by-case analysis of the equity chancel-
lor? Which definition of fairness do you most often use? Are you still
thinking: “It depends”? Let’s take a closer look at each standard.
With the letter-of-the-law process, fairness equals applying the law
the same way to every person (Blackstone & Cooley, 2003). Individual
circumstances are immaterial. The “law is the law.” Consistency is the
hallmark. COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL