Monday, January 8, 2024

What is Equality of Opportunity? A Framework for Analysis

Rosie the Riveter

Ensuring equal opportunities is a much-touted social goal. Governments often introduce policies and legislation aimed at eliminating forms of discrimination that prevent this from happening, and providing assistance to those that need a leg up. But what actually is equality of opportunity? And is it really a laudable social goal?

In this article, I will answer these two questions. I will start by clarifying the nature of equality of opportunity, distinguishing it from equality of outcome, and identifying its three core elements. Second, I will assess a variety of arguments suggesting that equality of opportunity is not intrinsically good but is, rather, only instrumentally or derivatively good — not something to be pursued in itself but for the sake of something else. I will ultimately conclude that equality of opportunity is probably good in itself but it is one among many laudable social goods and can, in some circumstances, be traded off against other goods.

In presenting these thoughts, I will be drawing on the work of two thinkers in particular: Peter Westen and Richard Arneson.

1. Understanding Equality of Opportunity

Equality is about ensuring parity or equivalence between two or more parties. In political philosophy, equality of opportunity is usually explained by contrasting it with equality of outcome. The latter is about ensuring parity with respect to the division of social goods or services. The most obvious illustration is income equality or wealth equality. In theory, a society could aim for perfect income equality by ensuring that everyone gets paid the exact same, regardless of effort, ability, motivation or social contribution.

While aiming for equality of outcome is laudable in some contexts (e.g. access to healthcare treatments) it is not clear that is laudable in general. Indeed, as we will see below, there are famous parodies of the idea that society should aim for perfect equality of outcome. Some difference in social outcome, particularly with respect to income and reward, is usually thought to be both desirable or tolerable, insofar as it produces other beneficial outcomes (innovation, economic growth, social diversity, cultural enrichment, freedom of choice and so on).

This is where the idea of equality of opportunity comes into play. Instead of ensuring that everyone gets an equal share of social goods, proponents of equality of opportunity suggest that we should ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to access or compete for those social goods. An obvious illustration would be the competition for desirable jobs, such as being a doctor or medic. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to compete for such a job simply because they are female, or black or poor. All should be given an equal chance to prove themselves (prove their talents or merits). This may result in unequal social outcomes — the medics may earn more than the store clerks — but at least everyone had a fair chance to achieve those different outcomes.

This is quite a rough sketch of the idea of equality of opportunity. To my mind, one of the clearest conceptual analyses of it comes from Peter Westen. His 1985 article ‘The Concept of Equal Opportunity’ offers an insightful analysis of the structure of equal opportunity policies. The article also has the added bonus of providing a surprising conclusion regarding the coherence of the concept. Let me explain.

Westen argues that equality of opportunity policies have three key structural elements:

Covered Agents: Every policy ought to have a set of clearly defined agents, or classes of agents, to whom it applies, e.g. all the people in a given state, all the people over the age of 18 in a given state, and so on. These are the agents, or classes of agent, between whom, equality of opportunity must be attained.
Target Goals/Outcomes: Every policy ought to be aimed at some clear target or goal. We don’t pursue equality of opportunity in the abstract. We pursue it with respect to certain desired outcomes (jobs, educational attainments, success in sport). It is the opportunity to pursue such outcomes that we are trying to equalise.
Obstacles to be Removed: Every policy ought to require the removal of some specific set of obstacles to attaining the desired outcome. These obstacles will typically apply differentially to the covered agents. For example, prejudice against women is an obstacle to women succeeding at job interviews. Laws that ban or punish such prejudice try to remove that obstacle and thereby ensure that men and women are on a more equal footing.


The obstacles to be removed by the policy are, in many ways, the most important and philosophically contentious aspect. As Westen points out, no equality of opportunity policy tries to guarantee that agents will achieve the desired outcome. If it did that, it would not be about equalising opportunities but about equalising outcomes. The distinction between the two concepts would erode. Instead, the goal must be to ensure that each agent has a reasonable chance of achieving the outcome.

But what counts as a reasonable chance? Making it possible for the agent to achieve the goal seems to demand too little. Under the right conditions, nearly everything is possible. So it must be about raising the probability of them achieving the outcome to some degree, but by how much? Westen doesn’t offer any prescriptions in his article. That’s not what the article is about. He suggests that one obvious aim should be to remove obstacles that are fixed and beyond the agent’s control, e.g. no one should be disadvantaged due to age, or gender, or race. Beyond that, however, things get tricky. We will consider why a bit later on. But other obstacles often can and should be removed too.

In summary, for Westen, equality of opportunity can be best defined/characterised in the following manner:

Equality of opportunity = removing obstacles to the achievement of some target goal for some set of agents so as to raise the probability of their achieving that goal (typically, though not necessarily, relative to some other set of agents) by some reasonable degree.


This doesn’t come directly from Westen, but is, rather, my extrapolation from his text. The bit in brackets might raise a few eyebrows. You might argue that the whole point of equality of opportunity is to raise the probability of one set of agents achieving a goal relative to some other agents. It’s about levelling the playing field and removing unfair advantages, after all. If you raised the probability for all agents, then this wouldn’t address the underlying problem.

I think this is generally correct: an equality of opportunity policy would, in the ordinary course of events, be about raising probabilities of one set of agents relative to another (women vs men for instance). But it’s not clear that this must, always and everywhere be the case. Removing obstacles may not always be to the disadvantage of one group.

This brings me to one of the curious implications of Westen’s analysis, and one that he himself emphasises. Once you break equality of opportunity policies down into their three component parts, the language of equality becomes largely redundant. Why is this? Well, because removing some obstacles will almost never, in the real world, result in perfect equality between two sets of agents. Suppose you have two candidates going for the same job: Harry and Sally. Making it illegal to favour men over women in job interviews will not mean that Harry has the exact same chance of getting the job as Sally. Harry and Sally will differ in all manner of ways. Maybe Harry has more years of education; maybe Sally is more confident and loquacious. As Westen puts it:

People who have equal opportunity by one measure of opportunity will have unequal opportunities by other measures. No two people can have an equal opportunity to attain a specified goal by every measure of opportunity unless they are both guaranteed the result of attaining the goal if they so wish. 
(Westen 1985, 845)


In a sense, then, we don’t aim at equalising opportunities; we aim at giving specified agents the chance to achieve target goals without the hindrance of certain obstacles. In some contexts, you could think of it as giving individuals a ‘right’ to have that chance.

2. Is Equality of Opportunity Valuable In Itself

Westen’s analysis is edifying and perhaps even sobering for advocates of equality of opportunity. It also points towards another perennially popular debate concerning the intrinsic vs instrumental value of equality of opportunity. Should we aim for equality of opportunity for its own sake or because it is a proxy for or gateway to other desirable social goods?

In a much-quoted short story, Kurt Vonnegut famously parodied the idea that equality was laudable in its own right. The story in question is Harrison Bergeron. It is set in the year 2081 and depicts a dystopian future in which the US achieves perfect equality between all citizens by ‘handicapping’ (the language is archaic) them so as to ensure no one has an unfair advantage. The famous opening paragraph captures the gist of it:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.


The implication is that no one would want to live in a world of such perfect equality. It would be a horrendous affront to human flourishing. There is no point ‘levelling down’ to achieve equality: that would deprive us of too many other valuable things (freedom, creativity, diversity, innovation and so on). And it’s not just Vonnegut that makes this argument. Philosophers such as Michael Huemer and Harry Frankfurt have made essentially the same point, albeit in more sophisticated and analytical ways.

All such arguments against equality tend to adopt the same structure. They ask us to imagine a world (however farfetched) in which equality (of whatever type) is achieved but people are much worse off (by some metric, e.g. less freedom, less well-being). Surely we wouldn’t want to live in such a world? Conversely, they ask us to imagine a world in which equality is violated but everyone is much better off. Surely we would prefer that world to the one of perfect equality? Therefore, it must be the case that equality is not good in itself. It must only be good because it is an instrument towards or derivative from some other good. So, for example, we might pursue equality because we think it increases freedom and well-being, on average or in most cases, but it is really our desire for freedom and well-being that motivates our pursuit of equality. This fact is revealed in the extreme hypothetical case in which freedom/well-being and equality seem to clash.

The version of this argument that I have just sketched is not particularly sophisticated. Let’s consider a more sophisticated one, and one that is specifically targeted at equality of opportunity and not just equality in general. The version I have in mind comes from the writings of Richard Arneson. Arneson’s views on equality of opportunity are complex, but in his paper ‘Four Conceptions of Equal Opportunity’ he offers a range of Harrison-Bergeron style objections to theories of equal opportunity. I will focus on his objection to Rawls’s theory of ‘fair equality of opportunity’ (FEO).

To simplify, Rawls’s theory of justice holds that a just society must first provide for basic liberties of all people, then fair equality of opportunity, and then a particular form of distributive justice that maximises the provision of resources to the least well off. The latter is often the most-discussed and debated aspect of Rawls’s theory but the preceding conditions (basic liberties and FEO) take priority over it (in a lexical order). His theory of FEO argues for the removal of unfair advantages that people have as a result of social privilege or class. More precisely, it argues that in competing for valuable opportunities, the only obstacles that are tolerable are differences in natural ability/native talent and ambition. All other obstacles should be removed (provided this does not conflict with basic liberties).

There are a lot of problems with Rawls’s theory. What exactly is native talent? How can we assess it, apart from processes of enculturation or socialisation? Why should ambition be rewarded, per se? What if ambition is itself often honed by socialisation and social privilege? But even if we set these problems to the side, and accept the parameters of FEO, it is not clear that a society that violated FEO would be unjust or undesirable. Arneson asks us to imagine the following scenario:

Imagine that an egalitarian society channels extra resources into the education and socialisation of children of low-income parents, with special resources devoted to the subset of children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have subpar endowments of natural talent. These individuals, let us suppose, then have better prospects of competitive success than individuals from advantaged backgrounds with the same native talent endowments and same level of ambition.  
(Arneson 2018, F162)


Clearly this society violates FEO, but is it bad? Not obviously so. Indeed, some might argue that it is good insofar as it gives an advantage to the less advantaged. Also, as Arneson points out, compensating benefits could be paid to the members of the advantaged class who lose out in the competition of life. Of course, the same logic works in reverse and Arneson sketches the opposite society too: one in which the already advantaged become more advantaged and compensate the less well off. Either way, he argues what we have here is a situation in which FEO is violated but it is not clear that we should be too bothered.

The problem with this type of argument is that it doesn’t by itself prove that equality (of opportunity) lacks intrinsic value. Equality could be one of many, plural, goods that a society should seek to realise (Arneson is aware of this problem and discusses it). On some occasions, these values may clash or conflict. On those occasions, we will need to balance or trade-off one value against another. It could well be that, when push comes to shove, freedom or well-being counts for more than equality. If we have to choose between them, then we de-prioritise equality.

But if equality is one of many plural goods, it suggests two important caveats to the sceptical argument. First, just because we can imagine hypothetical situations in which these values conflict does not mean that such value conflicts are common. In many cases, freedom/well-being might go hand-in-hand with increased equality of opportunity. Indeed, there is a good argument for thinking that increased equality of opportunity tends to also increase freedom and well-being since people are given more options and are more able to pursue those opportunities that best fit their desires and motivations. Second, in those cases in which freedom and well-being are held constant, equality can be an important tie-breaker when choosing between policies and outcomes. I discussed this previously when criticising some of Steven Pinker’s comments on equality. To quickly review the idea, imagine a society consisting of three individuals: A, B and C and 100 utils of well-being to be shared among them. In one world, 50% of the well-being flows to A, while the other two share an equal 25%; in another world, the three get equal 1/3 shares of well-being (you can think of well-being as ‘wealth’ if that makes it easier). Given that the aggregate level of well-being is the same in both worlds, it seems plausible to suppose that we should favour world 2 over world 1, precisely because it is more equal.

In sum, there may be some reason to think that equality of opportunity is not an overriding good and should not be pursued at all costs. But that does mean that it is not a good and worth pursuing in many instances.

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