Sunday, August 08, 2010

Equality of Opportunity

On the Liberal Youth forum I attempted to launch an interesting discussion on equality of opportunity, which I will reproduce here. It is interesting, since the more libertarian inclined liberals are wont to say that they are away of the moral strength of the idea that if person A works harder in a more valuable job than person B, then it is right that A is rewarded more than B, and so reject some crude egalitarianism. They suggest that they compromise by favouring "equality of opportunity" over "equality of outcome": Give everybody an equal opportunity, and then permit whatever inequalities arise out of people pursuing those opportunities as they choose.

A conservative poster, Snuggles, said to a Lib Dem, Sam G, that "Frankly it always comes down to equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome and you are normally on the opportunity side of the debate with us." Sam G, for his part, agreed: "Very true snuggles, and I still am. I realise that I am probably very hard to place in the political spectrum, simply because I have not quite found my spot, which I fully accept. However, if you'll accept it, I don't believe the Conservatives have any wish to promote a level playing field. We presently live in a world that isn't level at all, equal opportunities are growing but no where near anything that could actually be described as potential for all. It would take an active government to create this, one I don't see from the present, which saddens me and was the attempted message of my post. Just my thoughts on the matter, I'm sure you'd disagree."

However, I took issue with the stated aim of creating "equality of opportunity."

Does equality of opportunity make much sense, either? Asking from a philosophical perspective that is, I mean, just what does the phrase "equal opportunity" mean? When are opportunities equal? When everybody has the same opportunity to do the same things?

Beyond that, why is it desirable? Suppose that the number of opportunities I could have could be increased, but without increasing the number of opportunities available to anybody else. Doing so would clearly upset equality of opportunity, but that would mean that maintaining equality of opportunity would mean preventing me from having more opportunities than I otherwise could have.

But then again, that takes us back to just what it means for opportunities to be equal. This thought occurs to me precisely because I realised that I may not care if the number of opportunities available to me is prevented from increasing, because I might not value having those opportunities highly. Gaining the opportunity to eat gooseberry crumble, for instance, would rank pretty low for me right now, because I don't like gooseberries that much (of course, if I am starving in a desert, this opportunity may be worth more). So, when we "equalise opportunity" are we trying to ensure that everybody has the same number of opportunities? Or are we trying to ensure that everybody has equally valuable opportunities? And must they be precisely the same opportunities, so that, for instance, either if I have an opportunity to work for a pizza company, you should have an opportunity to work for the same pizza company? Or for a different pizza company - there should be a pizza company everybody has an opportunity to work for?

Equality of opportunity sounds like a nice compromise, but answering the "equality of what" problem in political philosophy does not answer the question of why egalitarianism is attractive at all.


My chum Ziggy felt he could provide and answer to my question "Asking from a philosophical perspective that is, I mean, just what does the phrase 'equal opportunity' mean?" He said "Well it means you don't bar people from taking advantage of the opportunities to better one's life provided by society etc." But when I responded, "Why is that "equality of opportunity"? Where does the equality bit come in?" he said

Being of the libertarian mindset you’re yet again being all absolutist

When people talk about equality of opportunity they’re talking about greater opportunity & striving towards a situation where all in society have an equal opportunity.

Now its unlikely there will ever be a society where all have equal opportunity but its no bad thing to strive towards all having a greater opportunity.


On the claim that I was being, in some way, "absolutist" I wasn't at all sure what he meant, and told him so.

When Ziggy said "When people talk about equality of opportunity they’re talking about greater opportunity & striving towards a situation where all in society have an equal opportunity," I responded

Are these the same things? They sound like they might even, in some cases, be mutually exclusive. You haven't actually addressed a single part of my original post, which asked what "equality of opportunity" means, and also why it is desirable that opportunities be equal.


To Ziggy's claim that "its unlikely there will ever be a society where all have equal opportunity but its no bad thing to strive towards all having a greater opportunity" I responded

But why? Why not just ensure that people have, say, a minimal amount of opportunities, and then let anybody have as many or as few opportunities as they can obtain after that point?

Striving for "all having a greater opportunity"? What does that mean? "A" greater opportunity implies just one big opportunity, but I doubt you mean that. I suspect you mean more opportunities. But which opportunities? Why would each person what as great a number of opportunities as they can get? Why not a small number of valuable opportunities?

Moreover, striving for "greater opportunity for all" in the sense of increasing the number, or even increasing the number of valuable opportunities, or increasing the number opportunities to gain what is valuable is not the same as increasing equality of opportunity. Indeed, inequality of opportunity could increase whilst "greater opportunity for all" is achieved: By increasing opportunity for some at a much faster rate than it is increased for others. If opportunities should, in some sense, be "equal," then presumably such disparate rates of increase should be prohibited, even if that means not letting anybody and everybody's opportunities increase.


It actually seems to me that Ziggy was not in favour of equality of opportunity at all, or that he had any good reason to be.

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