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Real equality of opportunity?

November 26, 2007
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Let’s say that our basic moral commitment is the idea that every human being ought to have real equality of opportunity as he/she pursues a life plan. What does this mean, in detail, and what implications does it have for social justice?

Equality of opportunity can be construed in broader or more narrow ways. Narrowly, we might say that persons have equality of opportunity if they are considered for positions, benefits, and burdens without respect to “personal” characteristics — their family origin, race, age, ethnicity, health status, etc. Only the objective and person-independent features that are relevant to performance ought to be considered in selecting people for opportunities. (This is how equality of opportunity is construed in employment.) Does this narrow construction really capture the moral value of equality of opportunity, however? Evidently it does not, because it ignores the history of how various individuals came to have the objective characteristics and talents they possess today. If two candidates for firefighter are compared on the basis of their current physical fitness, but one had a childhood of normal nutrition and the second was chronically malnourished, then we would be reluctant to say that they are currently enjoying equality of opportunity. The choice between them today depends on objective differences of fitness for the job; but the differences that currently exist were not themselves created through a fair process.

So we should broaden the definition of equality of opportunity and require that each individual should have had access to the resources normally necessary for the full development of his/her capacities as a human being. These would include decent nutrition, access to health care, and access to education of comparable quality. And we might even add in an empirical assumption, that there is a range of levels of provisioning of these social goods within which any individual has the possibility of achieving high levels of performance. That is, it might be maintained that there is a (reasonably high) level of provisioning of health care, nutrition, and education that is “good enough” to permit the individual to have a fair chance to compete for opportunities in a ” narrow equality of opportunity” environment.

If we take this somewhat broader view of equality of opportunity, then we are immediately forced to consider the workings of basic social institutions and the distributive consequences they have for rich and poor. Do the resources available to the poor exceed the minimum level of provisioning specified above? Or are significant numbers of the poor sufficiently disadvantaged in their current performance by the history of unequal access to resources, that today’s competition fails the broader “equality of opportunity” criterion?

In many of the instances we can observe today the answer to the final question is “yes”. Children who have attended under-resourced elementary schools and high schools have substantial deficits in terms of high-end cognitive achievement — so a “neutral” competition between them and better-educated children fails the test. Children whose nutritional status and health status is sufficiently compromised that their cognitive development has been impaired, are equally unfairly treated when subjected to “narrow equality of opportunity” processes. And this has immediate implications for the social inequalities that exist in American society between rich and poor, urban and suburban, white and black, and rural and urban.

When we shift the focus to international inequalities across levels of human development, we come to a similar conclusion: because of gross inequalities in the availability of resources during the process of human development for children and young people, we cannot conclude that contemporary distributions of positions, opportunities, and burdens are the fair result of institutions embodying equality of opportunity. Nutrition, health, and education are factors that are very unequally distributed in the country and the world today; and the bottom end of the distribution falls well below any reasonable standard of “good enough” for full human functioning.

The implication, then, is a strong one: if we think that fair equality of opportunity is a compelling moral principle, then we also must conclude that a very significant reform of some basic social institutions must occur if we are to be able to assert that contemporary society is just.

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