You would be hard pressed to find someone, especially in the current political climate, who does not believe in equality of opportunity in some shape or form. According to Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, contemporary politics is carried out on what he describes as an “egalitarian plateau”, where there is near-universal agreement that people should be treated with equal respect and concern regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, financial status, intelligence, congenital differences, and so on. Even the most ardent anti-egalitarian would recognise that their interests are best served when equality of opportunity is guaranteed for all and the opportunities and capabilities of so many are not squandered as a result.
It would be difficult to imagine a currently serving politician, regardless of their political affiliation, who did not think that people should have equality of opportunity, and across the political spectrum there appears to be a general consensus that equality of opportunity is a commendable and worthwhile ambition for any government to pursue. However, despite what appears to be political agreement across the board on this fundamental principle, deep-rooted disagreements exist on precisely what “equality of opportunity” amounts to and how it should be interpreted. British political philosopher and sociologist Adam Swift identifies three very different conceptions of equality which broadly fall under the umbrella of equality of opportunity and which illuminate this disagreement. He refers to them as the “minimal”, the “conventional” and the “radical” conceptions, and I will explain below what each of them means with respect to equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.
The minimal conception
The minimal conception of equality of opportunity essentially means that a person’s race, gender, religion, or congenital traits should not be an impediment to being selected for a job, receiving a good education, and having access to other such opportunities. Taking the example of being selected for a job, none of the aforementioned characteristics are regarded as relevant in determining if someone is the right person for the job, and the only legitimate grounds for selection are on a person’s relevant competencies, skill level, qualifications, experience, future potential, character, and so on. The minimal conception is therefore in alignment with the base level principles of the egalitarian plateau which I discussed earlier. In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from this type of inequality and discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, and companies both in the public and private sector will also have their own anti-discrimination policies to further combat prejudice and discrimination during the hiring process.
The conventional conception
As laudable as the minimal conception may seem on the face of it, some would argue that it represents a very crude definition of equality and it doesn’t go far enough in establishing equality of opportunity for all. They are more likely to advocate for the conventional conception of equality, which is the idea that equality of opportunity amounts to more than merely the sum of a person’s competencies, and that additionally the prospect of getting a good job or education should not in any way be limited by a person’s social background or socioeconomic status. After all, how can you expect someone to have the relevant competencies if you don’t provide them with an equal opportunity to acquire them? For example, the fact that the entry rate to universities of 18-year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK was 19.7% in 2018 compared to 46.5% of 18-year-olds living in the most advantaged areas of the UK, suggests that the UK does not adequately provide prospective students with equality of opportunity in this sense (UCAS End of Cycle Report 2018).
From this conventional view of equality, state intervention could be justified in order to level the playing field, and an advocate of this conventional conception might support policies such as abolishing private education, financial support for students who want to enter higher education, and even the reallocation of wealth through redistributive measures to pay for the cost of policies designed to provide greater equality of opportunity of this kind. But as the Austrian economist and political philosopher Friedrich August Von Hayek points out in his classic book The Road to Serfdom “… in a system of free enterprise chances are not equal, since such a system is necessarily based on private property and inheritance, with the differences in opportunity which these create”. Moreover, whilst it is true that such policies would make the playing field more level, they would not make it completely level because of the choices that individuals and families make. For example, we know that students who have private tuition do much better than students who do not, but would we feel comfortable with the idea of banning private tuition in the pursuit of equality of opportunity? Attempts then to remove even some of the influences of social and economic factors to promote equality of opportunity would necessarily involve implementing extreme measures, which would ultimately prove to be very unpopular and incompatible with other values we hold dear, such as economic freedom and autonomy.
The radical conception
What about those who believe that the conventional conception of equality, even when taken to its most extreme limits, still doesn’t go far enough to provide true equality of opportunity? You end up at the radical conception, which holds that society should not only correct for social disadvantages but also natural disadvantages as well. It’s reasoned that if it is unfair for a person’s opportunities to be limited by their social circumstances over which they have no control, then it follows that it is equally unfair for a person’s opportunities to be held back by any inborn characteristics, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, natural talents, and congenital differences, over which they also have no control. Consequently, the radical conception is closely modelled on the idea of equality of outcome, where the objective is to correct for outcome disparities in society based on these inborn characteristics. For example, as of June 2018, of the top 100 companies in the FTSE 100 Index, only seven have female CEOs. By the standards of equality of outcome, there should be 50 female CEOs, and there are many people, particularly on the left, who regard this as a problem which needs to be addressed.
However, in reference to this specific example, it begs the following question. To what extent is the fact that there are only seven female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies simply the result of the choices that individual women and men make, rather than insurmountable barriers to equal opportunity for females? It can be argued that so long as the “minimal” conception of equality of opportunity is guaranteed for all, you will never get the equality of outcome that you want because you will inevitably come up against the vocational choices that different people freely make every day. In the United States of America, they have enacted affirmative action programmes which aim to eliminate educational and vocational inequalities of groups that have previously suffered discrimination, for example by working towards greater parity between the number of males and females in specific industries, and to encourage greater opportunities and participation for racial groups that have historically been under-represented. It is often the case that equality of outcome is roundly rejected in favour of the more acceptable equality of opportunity, but it is also worth remembering that on the journey to achieving equality of opportunity, this may be dependent upon, at least to some degree, greater equality of outcome.