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What is the value of (even fair) equality of opportunity in an unjust society?

People across the political spectrum care a lot about social mobility. For instance, a recent BBC documentary entitled ‘Who Gets the Best Jobs?’, about how little upwards mobility there is in the British society today, seems to have hit a nerve – judging form the large number of views on youtube but also form the large number of passionate comments from the public:

And there are people who would equate perfect social mobility with justice, and who therefore deplore its absence as the most worrisome form of injustice today.

I assume this is so because equality of opportunities of one form or another is a very widely accepted political value today. Why would anyone be against fair chances? For people on the right, the principle of equal opportunities embodies an ideal of meritocracy which in turn promises that desert will be rewarded. Those on the left are keen on a version of the principle designed to condemn as unjust the obstacles that class (and other kinds of social inequalities) pose in front of individuals’ efforts to obtain socially desirable positions. For instance, John Rawls‘ principle of fair equality of opportunities(henceforth FEO) requires this: ‘[s]upposing there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin.’ The rest of this post explores the value of this version of the principle.
One of the most compelling reasons for valuing FEO is the belief that it is unfair when factors such as the level of education or wealth in one’s family of origin determines one’s chances to lead a good life. This reason is either unstable or less compelling than it seems at first glance. If it is interpreted to say that how well someone’s life goes ought not to depend on factors that are outside her control and for which she cannot be held responsible, then the principle is unstable: we are as little responsible for our native talent, and, possibly, for our ambition, as we are for our parents’ money and education. If it is interpreted to say that people deserve to reap and keep the benefits of their talents the principle is contentious precisely because people have no merit in being born with particular native talents.
Here is an illustration: imagine that two children have an equally strong desire to get a job and that occupying it will contribute equally to their overall wellbeing; one is more talented, while the other has more parental support. If we bracket the question of the social utility of that job being occupied by one, rather than the other, person, does it make any moral difference which of the two gets the job? In any case there will be a winner and a loser, and in any case a form of luck will dictate who is who.
You may think that the issue of social utility ought not to be bracketed. A second ground for valuing FEO is that the ideal of meritocracy it embodies makes possible various kinds of excellence that all of us have reason to desire (who does not want to be served by competent doctors or civil engineers?). This reason has more weight when in comes to selection for some occupations than for others, and it may be often irrelevant in an unjust society. There is some reason to want, all other things equal, that the people who are most talented for medicine (amongst those who wish to practice it) become doctors. But with respect to other professions that are sought after, ‘good enough’ will probably do (say, when it comes to who ends up practising civil law.) FEO is not necessary to avoid the social disvalue of incompetent individuals landing jobs where they can do harm. A method of eliminating candidates below a certain threshold of competence will do.
An even more important point here is that people who live in unjust societies have reasons not to want the most talented people to occupy those desired positions that are connected to the exercise of power. The most talented lawyers serving a corrupt legal system are likely to do more damage than more mediocre ones; the most talented conservative politicians will be most efficient at keeping in place unfair institutions; and similar things can be said about the most talented bankers, tax advices and top managers working in unjust societies.
One last thought on why it is not socially useful if the most talented land the best paid social positions in unjust societies: such societies tend to have mechanisms that harness talent in the service of a well-off minority – one such mechanism is, obviously, better pay. To take again an example from medicine, much research talent is currently used to seek cures for trivial conditions that afflict mostly the rich. There is no social utility in the most talented researchers who compete for these positions getting them. Therefore (and other things equal) it is far from clear that FEO in an unjust society contributes to the maximisation of social utility.
Third, FEO can also be instrumental to improving the situation of the worst off. In Rawls’ theory of justice FEO is nested in a more complex principle, demanding FEO to regulate the competition for desirable social positions in a society whose basic institutions are organised to ensure that the worst off members of society are as well off as possible. If the most talented individuals occupy the best rewarded social positions in a well-ordered society, this will supposedly lead to the maximisation of the social product. As a result, everybody, including the worst off members of society, will end up better off than the would if other, less talented individuals were to occupy those positions. This is the meritocratic component of FEO. The best results in this sense will be achieved if individuals can develop their talents equally, unencumbered by their class, gender, race etc. This is the fairness component of FEO. In this justificatory story, the value of FEO is entirely dependent on its operation in an otherwise distributively just society. Rawls himself came to the conclusion that the realisation of the difference principle requires market socialism or property owning democracy. One may dispute this, but few dispute that current societies fail to realise the difference principle. How important is it to make sure that people have fair chances to win unfair competitions?
So, it seems a mistake to worry too much about social mobility. We should be a lot more worried about substantive inequalities than about the distribution of chances to end up as a winner rather than as a loser.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Thanks for your post Anca, a very quick comment (and a lengthier one to follow) … concerning John Rawls' principle of fair equality of opportunities. Unless I am mistaken (and I am no Rawls scholar so this is possible), this principle must be understood in terms of an ideal theory. In ideal terms this should not conflict with your correctly expressed concern regarding substantive inequalities but of course we do not live in an ideal situation which is partially my problem with opposing the reality of substantive equality to the ideal of equal opportunities or am I missing something?

  2. Hi Anya, thanks, I think you're right on Rawls and I'm not trying, in this post, to make any anti-Rawls point. My impression is that many people (who are as such unconcerned with the Rawlsian theory of justice) deplore the lack of equality of opportunity in existing societies. And *fair* equality of opportunity is the more attractive version of the principle, therefore the focus on FEO.

  3. Anca, thanks for the post. On the whole, I am very sympathetic to what you say here, especially your concluding comment. I have two thoughts for you. The first concerns your last line of argument – on the instrumental issue. One thing that I picked up recently was about the Great Gatsby curve, the idea that equality and social mobility tend to move together. Various questions can be asked about this idea, but on one possible story, social mobility is good for reducing inequality. If that were true, it would seem that the concern for distributive equity would give us good reason to focus on social mobility (perhaps especially if, as your early comments suggest, the wide support for social mobility would make it a politically more feasible case to push). Might that instrumental case hold-up even (perhaps especially) in an unjust world?

    The second concerns the first argument. I wondered here whether another idea (unless I misunderstand your comments) might concern the value of choice. When you reject the first line of argument, you argue that the idea behind the argument is unstable because talent and effort are often matters of luck too, thus the point goes further than equalising, e.g., social circumstances. But choice looks to be less suceptible to this problem. So might the first case look more plausible if it was cast as the aim of neutralising matters of moral luck to allow choice to take a more prominant role in where people end up?

  4. Hi Anca, although I fully agree that equality of opportunity is not the most important aspect of social justice, I was wondering what follows from the doubts you raise about its value. Taking up Anya's point: in practical, non-ideal circumstances, it will never be perfect, and will have to be balanced against other values (e.g. parental autonomy). But what *other* principle should we have about who gets which jobs? Do you have in mind other selection mechanisms? The danger I see in not paying attention to equality of opportunity, at least in reasonably just societies, is that opportunities will be distributed through some form of cronyism and through personal ties. This, however, could have disastrous distributive consequences, concentrating power and wealth in the hand of those who belong to powerful networks. An alternative could be, for example, to throw the lot between candidates who have passed a certain threshold of competence, but I guess this would fall under at least some definitions of equal opportunity?

    Another point: could it be the case that in your argument against meritocracy, you (and maybe others in this debate) are using a narrow conception of talent, which does not include, for example, the ethical commitment to serve the rule of law in lawyers? One problem in this context is that it is hard to agree on standards of excellence, and that they are hard to measure. So you often end up with the use of proxies (e.g. marks in exams, number of publications, etc.), which do not fully capture what it means to be excellent in some area. This is a problem worth taking seriously, but I wouldn't count it as an argument against fair equality of opportunity; rather, it is a challenge for different professional communities to develop selection mechanisms that pay attention to excellence in a broad sense.

  5. Thanks Andrew. I agree on the first point. If we had high social mobility this would be a good indicator of increased equality, since we couldn't have the first without the latter. And if a package of egalitarian policies could only go through by appeal to equality of opportunities/social mobility, so be it. But I think it's important at all times to remember what we want for instrumental reasons and what we want because it's good full stop. (And I suspect that equality and social mobility go together in some societies more than in others. When there's lots of social upheavals there may also be a lot of social mobility without equality – I suspect this may be the case when it comes to, say, Romania in the past 70 years although I don't have data.)

    I don't know if I understand your second point correctly – you may be able to tell from my answer. I think choices often (more often than not?) reflect socialised preferences, as well as the individual's believes in her abilities. And I don't see how this could be different even in perfectly just societies. So I wouldn't be fine to call significant inequalities due to choice 'fair'. This doesn't mean I am opposed, all things considered, to even large inequalities resulting from choice since I think individuals' freedom to try to shape their lives is also very important. So perhaps the best way to reconcile the two desiderata is to make certain choices that can lead to significant inequalities reversible, and certain entitlements unconditional. (For instance: yes, you can give up your home and go live in that cave but, should you decide to return, you'll get another home; and you can always claim some health care.) Does this mean we'd have to keep saving the imprudent? Probably. Am I addressing your point?

  6. This is a really interesting question, and the post makes lots of thought-provoking claims. Thankst, Anca.

    I have one general question to begin with. Are you challenging the value of equality of opportunity as such or just some particular version of the principle, namely Rawls´s? Though I´m somewhat sympathetic to your discussion of the two children who have an equally strong desire to get a job, your analysis seems not to sanction a rejection of the value of equality of opportunity as such; rather, it could suggest that we need a more expansive account of what constitutes equal opportunity. (Perhaps an account much more akin to Dworkinian endowment-insensitivity?!)

  7. Anca, funnily, I am also unsure whether your answer addresses my point. Perhaps we are thinking along slightly different wavelengths. Let me try to come at the thought a bit differently. We might think, as your reply suggests, that a society should value individual circumstances reflecting (to some extent) individual choice (presumably, as you say, because we want to give people the freedom to choose the lives they deem best). My thought was that such an aim could give us reason to value equal opportunities – understood as the goal of neutralising factors arbitrary from the moral point of view (race, sex, social class, natural ability) in determining what opportunities face people – so that the differences between people are a better mirror of the choices they (and others) make (rather than something else). It may also speak to issues about distribution (both in favour of it and against it in different cases), but that would not prevent it giving a case in favour of equal opportunities, at least of a certain form and in a certain context. Does that make the thought clearer? As I understood it, your rejection of the argument for FEO that different circumstances should reflect different talents and efforts was that talents and effort are also the result of luck. My thought was that this objection does not apply to the choice argument. Perhaps your comments earlier in the paragraph suggest that the choices we make (turning, as they do, on preferences) are also a matter of luck to some extent. But that line (if it is what you meant) troubles me somewhat – I want to think we have some agency over our choices, at least to a greater extent than, say, our sex, class, natural ability, and so forth. Or have I misunderstood you there too?

  8. Hi Lisa, good question! I guess that 'how should jobs be allocated?' is in itself a big topic on which I don't have that many thoughts – or rather nothing systematic. And things may pan out very differently in just vs unjust circumstances. I think that 'careers open to talent' (which is one kind of equality of opportunity) will always be best with respect to some jobs (surgeons?) while lotteries may work better for others. In unjust circumstances in particular: If (F)EO is not a trumping consideration, one will be more willing to accept quotas, for instance in order to improve relational equality – to diminish stereotype threat and/or implicit bias, for instance. And if FEO is not a trumping consideration one will be less worried about some of the effects of partiality (I think both are desirable!)

    On the second point: I explicitly try to avoid using a narrow conception of talent and I agree that the difficulty of judging excellence cannot be a reason to reject meritocracy in principle. (It can only bring up feasibility considerations. Of course, these considerations may decisively tell in favour of abandoning meritocracy if, for instance, epistemic disagreement cannot be eliminated.) But I don't see that the complexity of 'merit' or 'talent' speaks either in favour or against the reasons I explore above.

  9. Andrew, I finally see what you mean. Sorry for the earlier confusion.

    No, you didn't misunderstand my comments on choice and chance. Yes, I also want to think we have some agency, and like many others am very unsure about its scope; but I am quite sure that whatever its scope, its contours as it were are determined by who the agent is – including socialised preferences and perceived abilities – which is itself a matter of constitutive luck. (Example: I may choose between salsa and tango, but I wouldn't have this context of choice if I thought I had two left legs.) Therefore I cannot get myself to contemplate what it would mean for differences between people to reflect their free choices.

    I also suppose the answer to your second question/suggestion will depend on the reasons for valuing choice. Do we value choice for reasons that should make us want that different people's outcomes reflect choice equally? (Very complicated!)

  10. Yes Tom, you may be right. I don't know how to think about what Dworkinian justice requires in non-ideal circumstances.

  11. Thanks for the replies. On the second point: You are right that it does not decide the matter, but depending on how good we can be at discerning the right kind of excellence the more or less attractive the whole idea of meritocracy can look. And yes, I was thinking along the lines of feasibility constraints that you suggest.
    On the first point: I do not see FEO as trumping (although it may trump in particular circumstances), but I would hold that even someone who believes in FEO can be in favor of quotas, by arguing that certain groups are systematically disadvantaged in their ability to achieve certain things, so to give them a fair chance (to make up for a previous injustice), quotas should be introduced (although they are not a very fine-tuned tool – one might rather argue in favor of something like, for example, a bonus in terms of publications for each child a person raises). Not sure what to think about partiality, that would depend on how you specify cases. I'm quite torn about certain kinds of partiality, e.g. hiring one's friends, because of the network effects on wider society.

  12. Thanks, Anca. It seems to me that the problems of moving from ideal or non-ideal theory are perhaps not all that great. If what motivates a concern for equal opportunity in the ideal society is the thought that citizens' entitlements ought not to depend on factors that they are not responsible for, then can we not move the conclusion that, in the non-ideal world, we should look to lessen the extent to which citizens' entitlements depend upon factors that they are not responsible for? Of course, I am not saying that no new questions are thrown up by consideration of non-ideal worlds, it is just that what makes equal opportunity valuable remains the same. (FYI: Dworkin discusses the issue of moving from ideal to non-ideal theory in Sovereign Virtue. I'm not persuaded by much of it, but its certainly a good starting place.)

  13. Thank you for your post, Anca. Thinking about the relationship between equality of opportunity and more demanding goals of justice raises interesting theoretical and empirical questions that I haven't thought about before. I'd like to raise two questions:
    First, would you mind elaborating a bit on your conjecture that people living in unjust societies may have reasons against the distribution of positions according to talent? I agree that it is easy to imagine how greater talent may cause greater harm or contribute to the continuation of an unjust system. But may greater talent not also be employed for justice-promoting purposes and possibly entail a greater ability to affect positive changes within the institutional setting within which it is put to use? I suppose an answer to this question will depend on how seriously one takes the possibility of change happening from "within the system".
    My second question concerns the theoretical relationship between equality of opportunity and any more substantive demands of justice that we may be committed to. Bracketing the question of whether equality of opportunity contributes to the stabilization of an otherwise unjust system (in the sense of the point above), and setting aside the issue of how to prioritize our political energy between the pursuit of the goals of achieving equality of opportunity on the one hand and other goals of justice on the other: Would you consider equality of opportunity to have independent value? In response to your question, how important is it that people have a fair chance to win an unfair race: Assume, that – for whatever reason – there is nothing we can do to make the system fairer or more just; wouldn't an unjust system in which people have a fair chance still be morally preferable to a system that lacked equality of opportunity?

  14. Anca, I am not sure here myself, but I have some intuition that choice can do some work in this question, perhaps more than your example suggests. Imagine a career dancing salsa pays more than a career dancing the tango and we have two individuals, one who opts for the former and one who opts for the latter. If we have neutralised the factors beyond their control prior to these choices (given them equal opportunities to decide between the two), I have some sense that the difference between them is fair (maybe not the full difference, but some difference). It is a difference that mirrors choices they wanted for their own lives, knowing what those choices would involve. There seems to me, at least, some reason to value that state of affairs, I guess deriving from a concern for autonomy. It looks less acceptable if their choices are informed by false information, such as in the example you give, and also if their preferences were entirely beyond their control. But would not even a small amount of informed agency seem to justify a small amount of difference on this rationale (and, thus, give some weight to the equal opportunities case)?

  15. Florian, thanks, this is very helpful! I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the second question and I find it difficult. I incline to think that even if a competition is itself unfair there is some value to giving people a fair chance to win it if they cannot avoid it. So my intention in this post is merely to say that that FEO is a comparatively unimportant goal of justice, not that it has no value (so here my answer to you converges with my answer to Andrew.)

    As for the first question yes, I agree with you that a distribution of positions according to talent will result in some gains as well as in some losses in social utility (in any society, I suppose?). The question is how likely it is for the gain to be a net one if the society is unjust. The answer will not turn on whether it is possible to change an unjust system 'from within', but on whether it is possible to change it from within its *most privileged* positions (if we assume these are the positions for which there is most competition).

  16. Many thanks for pursuing this! To be sure, I agree that fair equal opportunities has *some* weight (see also my answer to Florian).

    But now I am not sure how to understand your example in this context. The two individuals are equally talented, and make different choices, right? How it this related to equality of opportunity (understood competitively)? Do we assume it is justified that one career pays more than the other?

  17. The discussion has made me wonder if we shouldn’t value fair equality of opportunity for a reason that is rather indirectly connected to distributive justice, but which might still be very important: it counteracts tendencies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few privileged families (or a privileged class). If we assume that talent is distributed randomly (or even if we think that this is a sufficiently exact approximation, even if there may be some genetic element to talent), then fair equality of opportunity means that in every generation, the cards are given a new shuffle, as it were. It’s never going to be perfect, and it’s always going to be hard to find good proxies for measuring talent, but at least you *don’t* just rely on family networks. This might contribute to equalizing tendencies in the long run….

  18. Lisa, I agree with you. I think that a society that respected FEO would indeed be very unlikely to have high concentrations of power and wealth in the hands of a few families. But this seems a rather indirect way of progressing towards an egalitarian society (so a principle directly regulating differences in wealth would do even better than FEO). Maybe I have misleadingly titled this blog post – I should have made it clear it was about the weight of FEO relative to other principles of justice.

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