What is ‘equality of opportunity’?
“Equality of opportunity is a political ideal that is opposed to caste hierarchy but not to hierarchy per se” (Arneson) The rational behind this political ideal is that society is uneven, with privileges, standing and potential for success being heavily influenced by many different factors predetermined by birth. The political ideal places an individual in any given rung of social hierarchy as a result of their background. Equality of opportunity calls on a ‘fairness of outcome’ in society, but there are different conceptions on how this ‘fairness of outcome’ can be achieved and to what degree there can be a level playing field in order to achieve the possibility of any individual transcending economic and social hierarchy. This essay shall deconstruct models for equality of opportunity, examining different views and conceptions in order to better understand equality of opportunity and its associated political ideals, with extensive references to criticism, and arguments that are pro equality of opportunity.
The minimal or formal conception of equality of opportunity has a very basic framework. It dictates that all hierarchal positions in society are available, in theory to every individual. Strictly speaking it is not egalitarian. It merely allows opportunity based on merit and does not take into account a person’s background, whether or not a candidate was disadvantage or advantaged. The minimal or formal conception does not allow for discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or religion in most cases. It lays the foundation for most basic employment and human rights law and is aimed at determining that the most qualified candidates gain the most privileged positions. In the marketplace this has very simple consequences. The marketplace conforms to the minimal or formal conception of equality of opportunity as long as jobs are not offered privately to groups and are publicised adequately so that any candidate has the opportunity to apply. If an employer selects it’s workforce on the basis of a lottery, this also breaches the principles of the conception.(Only acceptable if all candidates are equally qualified) If a person, company or group boycott a product or company simply because they take exception to the race, gender or religion of company members, then this would breach the minimal conception of equality of opportunity. A good example of this would be patronage of public houses in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Members of the Protestant and Catholic communities drinking strictly in what they perceive as Catholic or Protestant owned/dominated public houses. To satisfy this conception of equality in the marketplace, all participants must have “Morally innocent economic goals.” (Arneson) Discrimination of an individual or group in employment or trade can only limit an individual or company and does not make financial sense, indeed it would be wasteful. So a competitive market will drive out formal inequalities in theory.
The reasoning behind an argument for conventional equality of opportunity is that formal equality of opportunity does not go far enough. “Those endorsing the ‘conventional’ conception hold that equality of opportunity requires more than people’s relevant competences… It matter also that all have an equal chance of acquiring those relevant competences.” (Swift) This view has been backed up by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a keynote speech recently, “People are not disadvantaged by background, or by previous circumstances, from getting the opportunities that they need to realize their potential.”(Brown) The conventional conception of equality of opportunity tries to encourage parity as best possible within the demography of society, so a person’s outcome in society depends on their effort and choices. The conventional conception does recognise the difficulties there are in making a completely level playing field....