Equality of Opportunity

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  • Topic: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Discrimination
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  • Published : March 19, 2013
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Introduction to Political Theory

Question 3: Does a commitment to EOp entail compensating people for their lack of natural abilities and capacities?

Equality of opportunity is a central issue in the inequality of modern capitalistic societies. Indeed, over history the concept has achieved widespread popularity as an ideal. However, political theorists disagree over what the concept truly means, let alone what coercive measures of justice it should engender. The cause of disagreement is the goal of equality of opportunity  - to ascertain what such a policy should resemble. I argue that a commitment to equality of opportunity entails the compensation of social contingencies and the needs of the disabled.

I will first define the key terms in the question: "equality of opportunity" (EOp), "natural abilities and capacities," and "compensation." For the purposes of this essay, EOp will be defined as open and fair competition by allowing all members of a society to perform up to the level of their natural abilities. Since the question relates to compensation policies, EOp will be considered as a deontological requirement rather than an idealist and valuable state of affairs. As long as all individuals have equal chances in social competition, EOp is not against hierarchy. Natural abilities and capacities denote those that are inherited and unchosen. It must also be clear what is meant by "compensation". Compensation for a lack of natural abilities and capacities will mean anything provided to the affected individuals to make up for their undesirable condition.

Arneson's distinction between formal and substantive EOp promotes the compensation of those lacking natural abilities and capacities. Whereas formal equality only demands fair competition open to all those who apply, irrelevant of their ability to compete in equal terms, substantive equality ensures that "sufficient opportunity to develop the qualifications needed for successful application is open to all" (Arneson 2002). Making up for naturally disadvantaged individuals is essential to Arneson, reflected in his idea that substantive EOp is the hardest to satisfy. Arneson's justification of EOp as an ideal of a society free from discrimination on race, religion, and sex entails what Swift calls the minimal conception of EOp (2001). The exception is statistical discrimination, which is justified because it relies upon the criterion of profitability. Likewise, since negative social contingencies of the "social lottery" can reduce one's financial power to develop the qualifications needed for successful competition (Rawls, 1999), they should also be offset. Though individuals with wealthy families will have an unfair advantage in formal equality, substantive equality -- or the conventional EOp (Swift 2001) -- ensures that those disadvantaged by family income or disability can compete equally. This is also known as Ex-ante Compensation, in which inequality exists between circumstance-homogenous groups, or types, with the goal of minimizing the differences. Also, Ramos and Van de Gaer's Compensation Principle (2012) seeks to eliminate inequalities due to one's circumstances. Arneson's advancement of substantive equality leads to compensation for the naturally disadvantaged.

Arneson's support for substantive equality fails to address the need to allow the disabled to participate in "open and fair" competition. Arneson posits that the satisfaction of substantive EOp can still be an unjust society if there is too little opportunity provision for its disabled members -- expressing the need to weigh out the concept with other forms of social justice. But with this in mind, a society that provides fewer opportunities to the supposedly "untalented" disabled pEOple does not satisfy real substantive EOp. While they could be said to have a smaller portion of the "normal opportunity range" due to compromised abilities (Daniels 1985), assuming they...
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