The Ethics of Human Rights (77): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs, Ctd.

Take a look at the following conflicting facts:


There are currently 113,198 [U.S.] patients on the United Network for Organ Sharing wait list for organ transplants. With only 28,535 transplant surgeries performed in the United States last year, it is clear that actions need to be taken to increase the supply of available organs. Around 7,000 Americans die each year while waiting for a suitable transplant (source).


In a study of India’s kidney market, 86 percent of donors had major health issues after their surgery. … The same study of kidney sales in India revealed that 79 percent of sellers regretted their decision to donate an organ and a shocking 71 percent of sellers were married women. Because poor women in India have little power, they can be easily forced by their husbands to sell their organs. (source).

Good health and survival are human rights. Those of us who have objections to unregulated markets in human organs have to show that markets fail, on balance, to further human rights protection and that alternative systems of organ provision perform at least as well as organ markets in terms of human health and survival. It’s important to note here that the comparison of the cases for and against organ sales will have to take the human rights of all – buyers as well as sellers – into consideration, and will also have to factor in all human rights and not just the rights to health and survival if the case against organ markets can show that other human rights may suffer if markets are implemented.

The typical argument against organ sales – and, by extension, against other types of commodification and other instances of the “imperialism” of the market – consists of three parts:

  • some “things” are degraded or corrupted if turned into commodities
  • if some “things” are traded for money then the profit motive may crowd out other types of motivation, and those other types of motivation are often morally valuable
  • organ markets are typically coercive given the fact that poor people will be coerced by economic necessity to sell their organs.

The first point has been stated most clearly by Michael Sandel:

[M]arkets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. … We don’t allow children to be bought and sold, no matter how difficult the process of adoption can be or how willing impatient prospective parents might be. Even if the prospective buyers would treat the child responsibly, we worry that a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are properly regarded not as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. Or consider the rights and obligations of citizenship. If you are called to jury duty, you can’t hire a substitute to take your place. Nor do we allow citizens to sell their votes, even though others might be eager to buy them. Why not? Because we believe that civic duties are not private property but public responsibilities. To outsource them is to demean them, to value them in the wrong way. (source)

Market values can indeed change how we look at things. If a human body is viewed as an organ mine, then ultimately this can destroy the dignity of the body, of the human person and of life itself. There is an inescapable incompatibility between the view that something has a financial exchange value and that the same thing has dignity. The horror of slavery wasn’t merely defined by the pain, the oppression and the lack of freedom suffered by slaves, but also by the fact that slaves were viewed as commodities rather than human beings. And although it’s unfair to compare organ trade to slavery, the same commodification and financial market logic underlies both. Commodification of the human person, whether as a whole or in part, is a failure to treat human beings with dignity and respect. Human beings shouldn’t be used as tools, instruments or resources.

Not even if it means saving people’s lives? Yes, not even if it means saving people’s lives, on the condition that there are other feasible ways of saving people’s lives. And there are. The fact that current rates of donation are not always and everywhere sufficient to meet the growing demand does not imply that all possible donation schemes are insufficient. Rather than giving up completely on donation just because current schemes don’t always work well we should focus on improving it, especially given the serious drawbacks of the market system that is hastily and sometimes lazily proposed by some.

I do understand the tendency of some to look for market solutions, especially given the success of markets in other areas of life. But there’s no good reason to assume that all social relationships should be financial ones.

The second objection to organ sales is that market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about such as altruism and solidarity. Not only is this intuitively persuasive – if people get money for things it’s likely that they’ll stop giving it away for free, and that giving in general will become rare when market values invade every part of life – but there’s also some evidence. This paper argues that donation rates would decline in a market, with detrimental consequences for social relationships. And this paper also finds evidence of crowding out.

I’ve dealt with the third objection – the coercion objection – in an older post.

The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.

The Ethics of Human Rights (68): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs

Or, better, a case against it. I believe that trade in human organs is morally wrong, at least if this trade is free and unregulated (but perhaps also when it’s regulated in some way). I don’t think the same case can be made against the sale of body products such as blood, hair etc., although some of the arguments against the sale of organs may also apply to the sale in body products. I will bracket this problem for now and concentrate on organs.

I make the argument against organ sales knowing full well that there’s a huge problem of organ shortages and that some people will benefit from free organ trade, and may even lose their lives if free trade is not allowed. Hence, if I claim that free organ trade is morally wrong, then I’m not necessarily making the claim that it should be forbidden in all circumstances. If there are other wrongs, such as people avoidably losing their lives, that overwhelm the wrongs resulting from organ trade, then the former wrongs may be preferable all things considered. However, I believe that the latter wrongs are commonly underestimated by those defending the legality of organ sales. I also believe that there’s a blind spot common among those who claim that the wrongs resulting from a ban on sales typically outweigh the wrongs resulting from a free organ market: it’s not as if the only choice is the one between the status quo – which is in most cases a ban on sales resulting in organ shortages – and a free organ market. There are other and perhaps better solutions to the shortage problem, even in the short term.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe a free organ markets causes serious wrongs:

1. Coercion by poverty

Not a single wealthy person will ever need or want to sell his or her organs. In a system of free organ trade, it’s the poor who will sell their organs to the rich. Maybe a legalized market will reduce the wealth disparity between buyers and sellers to some extent, given the fact that the number of potential sellers will be higher in a free market and that the number of potential buyers will not. This increase in supply compared to demand, following legalization, will reduce prices somewhat, making it feasible for more people to buy organs. Still, it will almost always be the relatively rich buying from the relatively poor, especially if the market is a global one (and I find it hard to understand arguments in favor of a free market limited to national borders).

Many of these poor will be desperately poor, particularly if the market is globally free. A decision to sell an organ isn’t made lightly, and requires some level of financial desperation. The extraction of an organ still carries a substantial risk (e.g. 1 in 3000 die from a kidney extraction even in the best medical circumstances), and few will be willing to take this risk from a baseline situation of wellbeing or happiness that is moderately high and that can not or need not be substantially improved by financial means.

Hence, if organ trade is allowed, many sellers will be desperately poor people, and there will be more of those in a legalized market than in a black market. Now it’s clear that desperation can be coercive: it forces people to do things that they would not otherwise do, that entail risks that they would avoid at higher levels of wellbeing, that may be harmful for them, and that go against their better judgment. If coercion is wrong, then free organ trade is wrong because free organ trade multiplies the number of desperately poor people that feel coerced to sell their organs.

2. Trade instead of justice

It’s reasonable to assume that rich people are responsible for the poverty that exists in the world, if not directly through their actions (trade policy, colonization etc.) then through their failure to prevent or remedy poverty. It will almost invariably be the same rich people who will want to buy organs from poor people. Now, if you first create poverty (or fail to do something about it, which in my mind is equivalent) and then tell poor people that you’ll give them money but only if they give you their organs in return, then you add insult to injury: you have a moral duty to give them your money unconditionally. Insisting on the possibility of trade while neglecting the necessity of justice is wrong.

3. Objectification and instrumentalization

There are some other good reasons why it’s wrong to buy an organ from someone, even if this person willingly agrees to the sale on the basis of informed consent, and even if he or she isn’t coerced into the sale by his or her poverty and isn’t someone who has a moral and unconditional right to the money he or she would get from a sale. For instance, buying an organ from someone means treating this person as an object and a means. It’s a failure to respect the person’s dignity as a being that should be treated as an end in itself rather than as a shop or an organ factory. It’s not outrageous to view organ trade as a new form of cannibalism.

4. Unjust distribution

The previous 3 arguments against organ trade focused on the wrongs it imposes on the sellers. But even the buyers are treated unjustly in a system of free organ sales. If the distribution of organs is regulated solely by way of free trade, then the patients who are most in need of an organ are not the ones who will get the organs. It will instead be those patients able to pay most who will get them.

5. Crowding out altruism

There’s even an argument that points to possible harm to society as a whole. If more and more human relationships are brought within the cash nexus, then giving and altruism will be crowded out. It’s obviously the case that when people can get money for something, they will stop giving it for free. Human nature is what it is. But given what it is, we shouldn’t encourage its darker sides. It’s reasonable to assume that free donation of organs will all but disappear when people can get cash for them. And it’s also reasonable to assume that this reduction in altruism can have a ripple effect throughout society and in many other fields of life, especially when we take account of the fact that more and more activities have already been brought within the cash nexus: sex, reproduction, politics

No one assumes that everything should be tradable. Even the most outspoken proponents of organ trade draw the line somewhere: they won’t allow people to sell parts of their brains, I guess, or their children and wives, or the parts of aborted fetuses (perhaps fetuses specially conceived and harvested for their parts). So we have to stop somewhere and disallow the trade of some things. Why should it be evident that organs are not one step too far?


If organ sales do have harmful consequences, then what are the alternatives? If we don’t want to allow those willing to sell to go about and legally sell their organs to those capable of buying them, then how do we solve the shortage problem and save the lives of those in need of organs? We can do several things:

  • We can try to increase the number of free cadaveric donations, by improving the way we approach bereaved relatives, by introducing a system of presumed consent, by promoting explicit consent (for example through the introduction of regulations that allay fears that doctors will stop life support when they need organs, or through some sort of priority system in which those who have pledged cadaveric donation can jump the queue when they themselves need organs) etc.
  • We can try to increase living donation, by way of awareness campaigns.
  • We can hope for scientific breakthroughs that make cadaveric recovery of organs easier or live donations less risky, or that make it possible to grow organ in vitro.

Organ sale is certainly not the only solution to the shortage problem.

A final remark: given the fact that proponents of organ trade often rely on the right to self-ownership – the right to do with your body as you please – we may have to tone down the importance of that right. Which is something we’ll have to do anyway: for instance, there’s no welfare state if the right to self-ownership is absolute.

Discrimination (13): Is Disability Just a Case of Bad Luck or Is It Discrimination?

When people think about disability they usually don’t see it as a moral issue. A disabled person supposedly suffers from bad luck, and the problems she encounters while living her life with a disability don’t result from the decisions or actions of her fellow citizens. They are instead caused by ill health or by biological and anatomical inadequacies, things for which no one is to blame. Brute misfortune, that is all.

Of course, a disability can be caused by someone else’s misconduct, for example industrial pollution or paralysis following an accident caused by someone else. However, let’s focus on blameless disability, the kind that is not anyone’s fault.

There’s a problem with the view that this kind of disability is no more than misfortune. The threshold level of normal human functioning that determines the difference between disability and non-disability isn’t just determined by biological facts, but also by social practices and the artificial social environment. For example, imagine a society that has developed technologically up to a point where people don’t have to use their hands anymore. No more computer keyboards, steering wheels in cars, remote controls etc. Let’s assume that everything that needs to be done can be done by programming and brain power (not a far-fetched assumption). A person who loses her hands in an accident will not be considered “disabled” in such a society. This accident will not push her below the threshold level of normal human functioning. In fact, most likely it won’t even be viewed as an accident, but rather a small nuisance, depending on the level of pain involved. Much like we in our existing societies react to a bee sting. It’s usually not disabling.

Now, when we take the same example of a person losing her hands, but situate her in a country such as the U.S. today, then we would say that she is disabled and that she has fallen below the threshold level of normal human functioning. But the reason we say this isn’t simply a biological or anatomical one, otherwise she would also have to be disabled in the imaginary society described a moment ago. The reason we say that she is disabled depends on the social circumstances and the social system in which she finds herself after losing her hands. Because U.S. society has been designed in such a way that people need to use their hands a lot of the time, we say that someone without hands is disabled. The decision to count someone as disabled has less to do with biology and anatomy than with the social practices and the artificial social environment we live in. The level of functioning a person can achieve depends less on her biological or anatomical abilities than on the artificial social environment in which she finds herself.

Hence, disability isn’t just something that happens to people; it’s something that we as a society have decided should happen to people. There’s nothing about our society that necessarily relegates people without hands to the category of the disabled. On the contrary, we have willingly designed our society in such a way that people without hands are disabled. We could just as well design our society in another way. Technology permitting, of course, but technology is also – up to a point – a choice: we just simply decided to develop technologies and the wider social environment in such a way that they don’t really take into account the needs of people without hands.

The fact that we designed our society in the way we did seems to indicate that we don’t care a lot about the disabled, at least not enough to do something for them. And such an absence of care can be viewed as a type of discrimination. After all, until some decades ago, men didn’t much care about the education of women, even though society was quite able to give women the same kind of education as men. The relative lack of education of women wasn’t a necessary fact of life but a choice. And that choice was a symptom of discrimination.

Of course, the analogy is shaky because gender discrimination was and is often a conscious choice, whereas the disabled are only rarely consciously disadvantaged. However, as I’ve stated before, the fact that discrimination is unconscious doesn’t automatically excuse it.

More on luck. More posts in this series.

What Are Human Rights? (39): Human Rights and Human Duties

For some people, there’s too much talk about human rights. They see human rights as a symptom of a typically modern type of moral decay, of a culture of self-importance and egoism, and of an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We want more and more of society and the state, and at the same time we are less willing to contribute. Instead of rights talk, they say, we should promote a sense of duty. Instead of rights declarations and rights in constitutions and treaties, we should have lists of duties and responsibilities, and have the state enforce those duties rather than rights.

You often hear this duty talk when the topic is crime (defendants have “too many rights”) or anti-social behavior (whatever that means), but it seems to be focused mainly on economic human rights. Rather than a right to unemployment benefits people have a duty to work and to support themselves. Rather than a right to very expensive healthcare for everyone, people have a duty to live a healthy life. And so on.

My point here is not to deny the importance of the duties mentioned above, or of a lot of other duties. And neither do I want to claim that human rights talk can’t be frivolous. I merely want to mention a couple of risks that come with duty talk. First of all, there’s the danger of rights becoming dependent on duties. If duties are given too much importance, people will be tempted to claim that your rights can only come after you have proven to be a responsible person. That would be wrong. Rights are unconditional. People have rights, end of story. They don’t have rights because they are responsible citizens respecting their social duties. Even irresponsible citizens, and even criminals have rights.

In addition, duty talk is somewhat superfluous. Duties are inherent in rights. Someone’s rights are everyone else’s duties. (It’s wrong to view respect for rights as the duty of the state only). I don’t have a right to violate your right; I have a duty to respect it. Rights would be meaningless words without such duties. So what’s the added value of emphasizing duties?

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (63): Stress, Ctd.

Poor people are often blamed for their own poverty. And indeed, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of poor people doing dumb and self-destructive things. However, even if we assume – and that’s a big if – that this evidence can be confirmed by more rigorous statistical analysis, then we’re still not allowed to claim that stupidity is in general – and not just in some cases – an important cause of poverty. First, it may very well be the case that everyone, rich and poor, is likely to make the same stupid mistakes but that the poor just have a smaller margin of error. The same stupid mistake made by a poor person costs him or her more dearly. Rich people on the other hand can afford to be stupid. Second, even if it’s true that the poor are on average somewhat more stupid and self-destructive, they should perhaps not be blamed for this. There’s some evidence from psychology that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities:

In a behavioral economics experiment several years ago, researchers asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to handle the following decision: Have your faulty car repaired for either $150 or $1,500. While the participants were considering how to decide, they were given simple cognitive tasks like solving puzzles.

The researchers, Prof. Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, both from Princeton University, and Harvard University Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan, expected that the stress from contemplating the $1,500 expense would hurt performance. They were right. But participants with above-average incomes succeeded in their tasks under both scenarios, while those with average or low incomes did worse as repair costs climbed.

Even the prospect of spending any money at all damaged the ability of low-income earners to think rationally. (source)

Other tests measured IQ before and after a harvest, i.e. in uncertain times and in more comfortable times:

The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. (source)

The stress of poverty causes distractions, which in turn show up as cognitive deficiencies. It’s not cognitive deficiencies that cause poverty but the other way around. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the causality goes both ways.

More on poverty and behavior, on poverty and stress, on poverty and intelligence and on poverty and brain functions.

More posts in this series.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.