Whose opportunities ? (Colloque, oct. 2009, National Library of Portugal)

Equality of Opportunity : Derivative Not Fundamental

vendredi 23 octobre 2009, par Richard J. Arneson

Thèmes : Inégalités | Egalité des chances

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Equality of opportunity in some form or another is a norm that is widely accepted in modern democracies, even among those who are hostile to egalitarian justice norms. The principle of formal quality of opportunity (careers open to talents) is especially uncontroversial. It holds that all should be free to apply for competitive positions that confer advantage andapplications should be judged on their merits. Many of us also hold that there should be, at least to some degree, equal opportunity to become qualified for such contests. Many of us hold that these norms are fundamental requirements of justice. These norms capture the attractive idea that justice unequivocally condemns hereditary hierarchies of caste and status. A society in which people of one skin color rather than another, men rather than women, individuals with oppositesex rather than same-sex sexual orientation, or members of one rather than another ethnicity or supposed race enjoy superior rights, privileges, and opportunities is by virtue of that fact an unjust society.

This essay resists this consensus. In what follows I explore two approaches to norms of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity. One approach takes these norms to be fundamental, high-priority principles of justice. John Rawls urges that a substantive equal-opportunity principle that he calls “fair equality of opportunity” (FEO) along with the principle of formal equality of opportunity or careers open to talents is a basic principle of justice. This equal opportunity norm along with two other principles—a principle protecting equal basic liberties for all and a principle regulating social and economic inequalities—constitutes the substance of social justice, the shape the basic structure of society must assume to qualify as just. These principles are rank-ordered. Equal liberty has first priority, equal opportunity has second priority, and the social inequality principle (the difference principle) has the lowest priority. Rawls’s system is complex, but exploring the place of equal opportunity within it is worthwhile, because Rawls’s ideas about justice are elaborated in clear and explicit detail, not merely lightly sketched, and also because his conception of justice as terms of social cooperation that free and equal persons would find acceptable resonates with widely and deeply held convictions to the effect that justice involves respect for individual moral rights not maximizing pursuit of any collective goal.

The second approach to be explored develops this latter idea of justice as requiring the greatest possible degree of fulfillment of the morally supreme goal. As I see it, this moral goal is enhancing the quality of people’s lives. The quality of an individual’s life, her well-being, is better, the more she gains in her own life the items on what has been called an “objective list” of goods. The supreme moral goal balances a double concern, increasing the aggregate of individual well-being and making the distribution of well-being across persons fair. In this perspective, norms of equality of opportunity like all other norms are affirmed or qualified or rejected depending on the degree to which they help or hinder the fulfillment of the one supreme goal. This approach to equal opportunity norms is not necessarily a deflationary account. Equal opportunity norms are regarded as having instrumental significance, but what is good as a means can be of the utmost moral importance.

I describe the second approach, but do not say much by way of defending it. I hope to persuade you that the second approach is at least worth taking seriously mainly by arguing that the first approach is deeply flawed.

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par Richard J. Arneson

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