The Ethics of Human Rights (46): Equality of Opportunity Limited by Human Rights

The concept of equality of opportunity is incomprehensible as such. It needs some additional words: equality of opportunity is always equality of the opportunity to do something, to be something or to get something out of life. I’ll argue that, if equality of opportunity is to be a justifiable ideal, this “something” can’t be just anything.

So let’s simplify a bit and start with an example that is – I admit – somewhat ridiculous but that will nevertheless be helpful in order to describe the necessary limits on the extent of equality of opportunity. The example is the equality of the opportunity to buy a hamburger at McDonalds. If we think that we should provide everyone with an equal opportunity to do this, then we’ll have to implement some rules. First, we’ll “legislate” (in a hard or soft way, depending) that orderly lines must be formed at the place where people can order their hamburger. Line-jumping or fighting for priority is not allowed if we want to achieve equality of opportunity.

The orderly line can be viewed as a means of achieving equality of opportunity: everyone has to wait for his or her turn, and people who are stronger, who have more guts, who are faster, who have all their limbs or who are otherwise blessed by the lottery of birth, by their upbringing or by their lack of misfortune later in life, won’t have their hamburgers sooner than anyone else.

However, legislating an orderly queue isn’t enough to guarantee equality of opportunity. People have to be able to reach the restaurant in the first place. So we’ll have to distribute the restaurants around the country in a fair way, so that people’s equal opportunity to buy hamburgers isn’t undone by distance or lack of adequate transportation capabilities (this is the idea of “food deserts“). The distribution has to compensate for all possible disadvantages resulting from the lottery of birth or the lottery of life, just as the rule regarding queuing compensates for those disadvantages.

All this focuses on the “equality” aspect of equality of opportunity, but we also have to pay attention to “the opportunity to do what exactly”. I imagine that some people don’t care about McDonalds hamburgers. I personally don’t, so I’m not really interested in having an equal chance to get one. Equality of opportunity therefore requires not only some “legislation”, order and distribution, but also the availability of equal opportunities to do different things. In other words, it requires not only equality but also choice. If the only opportunity people have is to buy hamburgers – or, more interestingly and realistically, to submit to a market regime that dictates their desires and needs – many people won’t be or shouldn’t be interested in the equality of those “opportunities”.

Obviously, equality of opportunity doesn’t just require choice but equal choice: if wealthy people have the opportunity to wine and dine at expensive places and to break free from the dictates of need, but the rest of us is condemned to McDonalds either because we have less power to escape those dictates or because we simply don’t have the money to go elsewhere, then there isn’t equality of opportunity, not even when we all have a McDonalds close to us and the people there stand in orderly lines.

However, this goes too far for most of us, because it means collapsing equality of opportunity into equality of outcome. We don’t really want everyone to be able to eat in their restaurant of choice. Such a form of equality of outcome would destroy incentives. Or take another example: if all boys in class want to date the same girl, do we tell them to form an orderly queue, do we tell the girl to move to a central location so that all boys live at a more or less equal distance, and do we give all boys equal financial means to woo the girl? This goes too far because equality of the opportunity to do certain things should be limited to the things we have a human right to do and to the things that don’t violate the human rights of others. Forcing the girl to move and to date every boy in class clearly violates her rights. And people don’t have a right to eat at whatever restaurant they want. But people do have a right to education, for instance, and should therefore have an equal opportunity to be educated. This requires some form of prohibition on “queue jumping”, some distribution of education facilities across the country, transportation assistance, choice etc.

More on equality of opportunity here. More posts in this series are here.

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