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

Equality of Opportunity and Social Norms

vendredi 23 octobre 2009, par Rasmus Sommer Hansen

Thèmes : Inégalités

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Equality of opportunity is an important ideal, which is apparently endorsed by many people in the contemporary world. There are, however, conflicting interpretations of the ideal with different practical implications, and it is therefore important to clarify the ideal. In this paper, I aim to show 1) that Ronald Dworkin’s theory, ‘equality of resources’, can be treated as an attractive interpretation of ‘equality of opportunity’, unifying a regard for equality with a concern for personal autonomy ; and 2) how ‘equality of resources’ can be developed in order to deal adequately with the existence of unequal social circumstances. Such circumstances can be exemplified by a woman living in a society permeated by patriarchal gender norms, and who face social sanctions and thus social costs when pursuing a professional career, while men do not. This seems unfair, but why ? According to the resourcist interpretation of equality of opportunity that I present in this paper, the injustice in the example can be explained by the failure of the so‐called envy test. According to this test , as I employ it, opportunities are equal when nobody prefers other people’s circumstances. But sometimes when unequal social norms are present, some people, like the woman in our example, would prefer not to be impeded in pursuing their ambitions by unchosen features of their appearances and identities which other people sanction, or by unpleasant emotional reactions associated with the violation of the norms, and they envy people who do not possess these features or reactions. Social norms can therefore impede the realization of the ideal of equality of opportunity understood as equality of resources. The structure of the paper is as follows : In section 2, I briefly outline ‘equality of resources’. I then proceed, in section 3, to present some reasons why this theory is an attractive conception of equality of opportunity, stressing its congruence with an ideal of personal autonomy. In section 4, I develop ‘equality of resources’ further by giving an account of the significance of social norms in order to show that this theory, in fact, can be made quite sensitive to social oppression. The concluding section outlines a possible resource egalitarian response to such oppression.

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par Rasmus Sommer Hansen

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