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The term equal opportunity refers to the absence of discrimination based on involuntary personal attributes, such as sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation. The concept of equality of opportunity identifies equality with open and fair competition for scarce resources but does not challenge an inequalitarian distribution of resources within society. This has sparked disagreement in political and theoretical struggles over what constitutes a “just society.”
Formal Equality of Opportunity
The notion of formal equality of opportunity requires that positions, offices, and admissions in society are open to all applicants and that formal procedures are used to select candidates based on qualifications deemed relevant to successful performance in a position or program. Individual abilities and ambition are valued as criteria while factors derived from group identities assigned by birth or social class, such as race, family, caste, religion, are excluded. Equality of opportunity carries with it the promise of upward social and economic mobility due to the removal of legally protected rights and privileges for particular classes or groups. Equality of opportunity emphasizes procedural and legal means of providing equal access to social goods, in contrast to alternative approaches to equality; for example, equality of outcomes, equality of resources, and democratic equality.
Equality of opportunity assumes that it is unfair if factors beyond the control of an individual significantly shape a person’s chances in life. Formal equality of opportunity can be justified as an enhancement of individual life chances as well as a means for maximizing the wellbeing of society. Proponents of equality of opportunity associate it with a meritocratic system in which the most talented and ambitious are the most rewarded regardless of socioeconomic background.
Limitations of Formal Equality of Opportunity
A central challenge to the very concept of formal equality of opportunity is that it does not take into consideration how circumstances beyond the control of an individual influence the ability to compete for scarce resources. In the case of standardized tests to evaluate a student’s educational and professional potential, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in the United States, formal equality of opportunity requires students to take the test under the same conditions and use the final test score as a measure to evaluate students’ performance. It thereby disregards the access some students have to more economic and educational resources to prepare for these test than others. By asserting neutrality toward all students, the test indirectly reinforces preexisting social inequalities.
A narrow perception of equality of opportunity is not inherently incompatible with profiling or statistical discrimination, which uses group characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, or age as a proxy for productivity in hiring and promotion. Profiling occurs when statistical trends are used to justify associating negative attributes with members of a group, such as a high crime rate, or risks associated with a particular phase in the life course like having children. These group characteristics are used as indicators for current and future productivity, thereby compromising the notion of equality that calls for an evaluation of each applicant on its own merits.
Equality of opportunity has historically been confined to the public sphere, neglecting the sources of inequality identified with areas traditionally held as private, such as family, marriage, and religion. Opening up all sectors of employment to women, for example, does not offer them equal opportunity for advancement when employers deny them (paid) pregnancy leave. While all workers may be subject to identical rules, women are disproportionately adversely affected. Formal equality of opportunity does not seek to change the social, economic, and cultural forces that structure the division of labor along gender, race, and class lines. Rather than resolving the question of equality, a larger degree of formal equality often reveals the impact of socioeconomic inequality within society.
Substantive Equality of Opportunity
Substantive equality of opportunity takes the broader social situation into consideration in determining criteria for qualification and performance. The appropriate means for achieving substantive equality of opportunity are often controversial. One possibility for achieving substantive equality of opportunity is affirmative action. The challenges of affirmative action in theory and practice are illustrated in the reform of the admissions system of the Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs), French elite universities, and higher education in the United States.
Indian Institutes of Technology were founded in 1951 and became a leading institution in professional training in India. Entrance is based on a standardized test without consideration of socioeconomic status and is granted to approximately 2 percent of the applicants. Despite the formal neutrality of the test, the vast majority of students admitted come from the urban middle class with access to good schools and the resources to attend costly preparatory courses. To further substantive equality of opportunity IITs were required to reserve 22.5 percent of seats for students of historically disadvantaged schedule castes and tribes in 1973. Reserved seats were awarded to candidates scoring at least 66 percent of the score of the lowest admitted applicant in the general test or to candidates successfully completing a one-year preparatory course. Despite these lower admission standards not all reserved seats are filled pointing to the challenge of opening elite educational institutions to low-income students without further counterbalancing vast power and wealth disparities in Indian society (Murali 2003).
France’s elite universities also use highly competitive standardized exams for admission. The vast majority of students performing well on these tests have attended very selective preparatory schools that rarely admit working class or immigrant students. In 2001 Sciences Po, one of these universities, began a special entrance program that admits a limited number of students from designated zones in impoverished suburbs. Relying on geographic criteria rather than socioeconomic status or ethnicity, the program does not directly challenge “republican values” that hold the French republic to be indivisible and all citizens to share equally in a common civic culture. While in practice the program admits many first- and second-generation immigrants from Morocco and Algeria their ethnicity is not officially taken into consideration, thereby avoiding discrimination between citizens or delineating the separate communities within France.
In the United States President Lyndon Johnson introduced affirmative action as a method of redressing the legacy of racial discrimination in 1965. Affirmative action programs in education and training were brought before the Supreme Court in the 1970s. In Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1978) the Supreme Court struck down a medical school’s affirmative action program that set aside sixteen seats for consideration by a separate admissions committee but the court upheld the legality of affirmative action per se. In 2003 the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in higher education ruling that race can be one of many factors considered for college admission (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger ). Affirmative is no longer justified on the basis of redressing past oppressions and injustice but in terms of a “compelling state interest” in diversity at all levels of society.
These three examples show that substantive equality can be furthered through very different affirmative action programs posing different kinds of challenges. India relies on reserved seats while the United States dismissed such quotas as unconstitutional. The United States uses race as one of many factors in evaluating an application while France dismisses affirmative action based on socioeconomic and ethnic status as running counter to its republican values. France, while not having a formal affirmative action policy in higher education, is currently experimenting with geographically based programs. The political struggle over substantive equality of opportunity is inseparable from the normative question, what makes institutions legitimate? As Xavier Brunschvicg, the Science Po’s director of communication explains: “We believe, here, that we are creating the elite of French society. But in order for these elites to be accepted, they have to be legitimate. Reproduction is not legitimate. We need to diversify to be legitimate, to help the egalité des chances [equality of opportunity] along” (Conley 2003). Pursuing substantive equality of opportunity redresses many of the limitations of formal equality, but it cannot resolve the question of why so many must compete for so little.
Justice and Equality of Opportunity
Is equality of opportunity the most basic formulation of equality, or merely one type of equality among others? In his theory of justice as “fairness,” John Rawls argues that equality of opportunity must be combined with a redistribution of social goods. Rawls incorporates both formal and substantive forms of equality of opportunity into his theory of a just society through his second principle of justice, which holds that “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged [the “difference principle”] and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls 1971, p. 83). Rawls argues that even without formal barriers to equality, those with greater social and natural advantages, for example intelligence and strength, will get a disproportionate percentage of social goods like income and positions. These advantages are beyond an individual’s control and thus the unequal outcomes are unjust.
Rawls’s theory of fair equality of opportunity requires that resources be redistributed across social classes. In order to give every individual the same opportunity to cultivate his or her abilities and pursue his or her ambitions, the state must provide additional resources, for example bilingual education or health care, when individual families are unable to provide them. No amount of substantive equality of opportunity, however, will eliminate all socioeconomic and natural inequality. Consequently, Rawls argues that equal opportunity requires the addition of the “difference principle.” By restricting the unequal distribution of goods to the benefit of the least advantaged, the difference principle requires that the rewards gained from individual talents benefit society as a whole and not solely the individual who possesses them.
In contrast to Rawls, there are many who question whether equality of opportunity is compatible with alternative conceptions of equality. John Schaar criticizes the idea that equality of opportunity is a basic definition of equality because it “really only defends the equal right to become unequal by competing against one’s fellows” (Schaar 1967, p. 241). He rejects the supposed neutrality of equality of opportunity and emphasizes its underlying individualistic competitive ethic. As Schaar contends, equality of opportunity reinforces particular social values to the exclusion of others and rewards only those with talents that conform to these values.
Robert Nozick (1974) embraces this individualistic competitive ethic in his libertarian approach and argues that the equality of opportunity Rawls endorses is undermined by the difference principle. Nozick’s “entitlement theory” insists that only the process by which goods are acquired is relevant for a just distribution. He thus rules out redistributive approaches to equality like Rawls’s that consider equality of outcome as well as procedures.
Michael Walzer (1983) concurs with Schaar as well as many communitarians that there is no single, universal standard for what constitutes an egalitarian society. Equality of opportunity is one principle of just distribution among others, each of which expresses a particular set of social values. These alternative conceptions are not necessarily compatible and compete for priority within a particular society. Walzer argues for a “complex equality” approach that maintains a plurality of distributive principles in light of the diverse range of social goods and actors in any society.
Feminist theorists question Rawls’s basic assumption, shared by many in equality of opportunity debates, that equality must be based on qualities that are shared by all and that certain kinds of difference (such as sex, race, sexual orientation, and religion) should not be taken into consideration. Universal standards like Rawls’s theory of justice often assume values and characteristics that are drawn from more privileged members of society. Susan Okin (1989) shows how Rawls’s theory of justice depends on the family, but does not sufficiently address whether relationships within the family are equal. Iris Young (1990) argues that forms of inequality are not limited to material resources, such as wealth, income, and positions that can be redistributed among members of society. Evaluating equality of opportunity also requires an analysis of the particular social structures (i.e., decision-making procedures, the division of labor, and culture) in which opportunities can be realized.
The debate over equality of opportunity opens onto core political and theoretical questions, including the delineation of public and private domains, individual versus group identity, and the possibility of impartial standards. At stake in this debate are shared concerns with legitimating and transforming political institutions, negotiating competing social values, and cultivating practices of social justice.
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