The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity

Like social mobility, equality of opportunity is one of those vague political ideals favored by those who want to offer a “vision of the future” but don’t really know what they’re talking about. I agree that it sounds nice, and no one would want to be against it. But the concept of equality of opportunity is highly problematic, at least for those willing to think it through to its logical conclusions. What you get is an initially modest sounding goal – modest compared to, let’s say, equality of outcomes – which then rapidly snowballs into something huge and, in the end, something highly undesirable. Here’s how this snowballing can occur in 7 steps (I personally gave up at around the third step):

  1. Equality of opportunity, in a basic sense, just means that careers, jobs and positions are open to all applicants and that applicants are judged only on their merit and qualifications. Their social class, family connections, friendships etc. don’t matter. Equality of opportunity (henceforth EO) is therefore a condition for meritocracy.
  2. But then people should also have an equal opportunity to acquire merit and to become qualified. In other words, they should have EO in education as well. Slots in school – or perhaps even slots in the best schools – should be open to all applicants, or at least to all those who are willing and able to study. And not just formally “open”, but accessible: poor students or people belonging to historically disadvantaged groups should get scholarships, grants, subsidies, preferential admission etc.
  3. However, all this is useless if people don’t have an equal opportunity to become willing and able to study. Children, especially poor children, should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment that fosters an ethic favoring work and study. That may imply abolishing poverty and other circumstances that sometimes inhibit a good ethic, since we want all people to have an equal opportunity to raise children. We don’t want EO by way of forced sterilization of the poors or the redistribution of their children.
  4. It’s not just deprivation that undermines EO. What about those born with disabilities or without native talents? Does not EO require that we also remedy or offset these kinds of disadvantages? After all, even if the severely disabled or the talentless have (acquired) the right ethic, have managed to get into a good school, have studied hard, and aren’t discriminated against by prejudiced employers, it often doesn’t make economic sense to hire them. So, EO may require that they are either compensated in some way, or that people like that aren’t born in the first place. Genetic engineering, designer babies and so on may then enhance EO.
  5. What about ugly people? There’s clearly a bias against them. They are often treated as if they have no talents, or as if they are disabled. And extreme ugliness can just as well be seen as a disability in the world we live in. Again, genetic engineering may help. Or maybe legislation against discrimination in employment should include rules against lookism. And if such legislation isn’t effective, then compensation should be an option. Or perhaps even subsidized plastic surgery. How else could one guarantee EO for the ugly among us?
  6. EO can also be undermined by persistent differences in early socialization. For example, if girls are successfully socialized into domestic roles, then no amount of schooling, anti-discrimination legislation or employer benevolence will give girls and women EO.
  7. Imagine now that we have solved all those problems and successfully broadened EO to include groups that don’t have it automatically. People will be qualified and meritorious, but in different fields because they have different preferences and different talents. This leads to a final problem for EO: EO is only a fact if we have solved the previous 6 problems and if all human capacities are encouraged and rewarded. Imagine someone has a talent only for classical music, but all consumers have an aversion for classical music. She obviously doesn’t have EO. It doesn’t matter that she is free to apply to all positions, that employers do not have a bias against her, that she received a subsidized education in music, that she has the right ethic and that she hasn’t been socialized into an unchosen role. If people aren’t interested she won’t be able to be a classical musician, except as a hobby for which she may or may not have time. So maybe she should be compensated. In general, EO depends on customers of the goods and services produced and marketed by people free and able to act on the opportunities that they have. Customers may be reluctant to buy goods or services that they don’t care about or that are produced by blacks, poors, gays etc. EO may then require anti-discrimination laws imposed on customers.

I guess I’ve lost most of you a few steps back. And rightly so. EO does have a tendency to become a reductio ad absurdum. This doesn’t mean that disability, lookism, socialization, the lottery of birth, customer prejudice etc. aren’t important problems. On the contrary. The thing is that these problems should perhaps not be framed in terms of EO. And legislation, compensation, subsidies and so on are perhaps not the best solutions.

However, EO should remain a worthy ideal – if we give it up we’ll only have nepotism and discrimination as an alternative – but we’ll have to find a way to limit its scope and stop the risk of snowballing. I’ve already offered a possible limit in earlier posts. You won’t be surprised to hear that human rights should be the outer limits of EO.

More on EO here and here.

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.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (24): Self-Confidence

A lot of income inequality is hereditary: wealthy parents can offer their children better education, connections, support and other resources that help to advance their prospects in life. Hence, these children will also be comparatively wealthy, on average. An initially unequal wealth distribution results in a self-perpetuating and perhaps even self-enhancing cycle of income inequality. It’s therefore unlikely that a socially mobile and meritocratic society arises automatically.

One of those “other resources” is self-confidence. Very confident people tend to earn more. In other words, levels of self-confidence are correlated with socioeconomic status:

University students are … poor at estimating their own test-performance and over-estimate their predicted test score. However, females, white and working class students have less inflated view of themselves. (source)

And self-confidence, like education opportunities and networking, is passed from generation to generation – not necessarily in a genetic sense. Self-confidence is, therefore, one reason – together with other parental resources – why income inequality survives the passing of generations.

What is more, there is a feedback mechanism at work between two hereditary resources, self-confidence and education: self-confidence has a beneficial effect on education. A positive self-perception has a positive impact on the expected probability of educational success:

Even small differences in initial confidence can result in diverging patterns of human capital accumulation between otherwise identical individuals. As long as initial differences in the level of self-confidence are correlated with the socioeconomic background (as a large body of empirical evidence suggests [see also above]), self-confidence turns out to be a channel through which education and earnings inequalities are transmitted across generations. (source)

Self-confidence can even improve human capital if it’s baseless, as it often is; if, in other words, it’s not grounded in superior personal qualities:

Say you have two people of equal cognitive skills, but one is over-confident about his ability and the other under-confident. The over-confident one is more likely to stick with a subject during the early steep phase of the learning curve – believing that “I can master this if only I apply myself” – whereas his under-confident colleague is likely to give up, thinking the material too difficult for him. Alternatively, the over-confident student might choose “difficult” academic subjects at high school, which qualify him for entry to some elite universities, whilst the less confident one would choose less academic subjects which disqualify him. (source)

And self-confidence does not just perpetuate income inequality when it reinforces the education opportunities of those who already have better education opportunities given to them by their parents. Self-confidence is helpful in the labor market as well, and the labor market is, like education, an area in which parental resources tend to skew opportunities (wealthy parents are better connected to possible employers, for example):

Overconfident people might select into occupations where there’s a high pay-off to the lowish probability of success, such as management, law journalism or politics. Less confident folk, under-estimating their chances, might prefer occupations which yield less skewed rewards. People misperceive overconfidence as actual ability. The overconfident job candidate is thus more likely to get the job than the more rational one. Posh white blokes can – perhaps unwittingly – manipulate the social awkwardness of others for their own advantage, and thus progress at work. (source)

Hat tip. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (55): Poverty of Aspiration

I think it was Aneurin Bevan who coined the phrase “poverty of aspiration”. It’s a variation on a common theme (other variations are the “culture of poverty” and the “undeserving poor“). According to some, what keeps people poor is their lack of aspiration. When faced with catastrophic or creeping adversity and bad luck, they give up and lose hope. As a result, they fail to invest effort, to try to make something of their lives and to persevere. Maybe in the end they simply lack the desire for anything better. And without such a desire, the idea of investing effort does not even arise.

If we go along for the ride and assume that lack of aspiration is indeed an important cause of poverty, then what in turn causes this lack of aspiration? Some mention stupidity, low IQ or the transmission of bad genes. Others cite fatalism as a common feeling among those who had a dose of bad luck or whose families have always been part of the lower classes: “people like us don’t succeed in life” and “we are destined to do low paying jobs or to be unemployed”.

I think that’s a very incomplete description of the causes of poverty. If some of the poor do indeed lack aspiration and if this contributes to their poverty, then we shouldn’t blame stupidity, genes or fatalism, but rather some of the stories we tell. Nowadays, we tend to believe that aristocracy and class society are things of the past and that we have developed in such a way that we now effectively reward effort and skill rather than class membership, at least most of the time. We do admit that luck still plays a role, but apart from luck people basically have a large set of more or less equal opportunities, at least in the West: we offer cheap education and healthcare, unemployment benefits and poverty relief etc. And even bad luck can be overcome with the right aspirations. Hence, the rich of today aren’t rich because they belong to the aristocracy but because they had the right aspirations when given the right opportunities. And the poor are poor, well, because they must have lacked aspirations.

An example of this kind of story is the powerful and widely accepted idea of incentives: we need to pay successful people a lot and tax them as little as possible, because then we reward success, and by rewarding success we promote it. The hidden assumption is that success is caused by effort and aspirations. If effort and aspirations are not the main drivers of success, then there is no reason to create incentives in order to promote and reward the effort and aspirations necessary for success. And if success would also, to some extent, be determined by talent or class membership, then incentives would be less effective or even useless: the talented will do well with or without incentives, because talented stuff is what they do; and those fortunate enough to have been born into privilege need no incentives either – they’ll do well without a high wage.

The incentive story is of course just one among many. The “Land of Opportunity”, the “American Dream”, the “Self-Made Man”, the “Rags to Riches” etc. are similar stories which assume and propagate the theory that poverty is the result of lack of effort and aspiration and that the poor in a sense deserve their social rank. The poor also are offered incentives and opportunities – today, few if any lack the opportunity to receive a good education (at least that’s what we like to believe). Hence, if they don’t succeed, it must be because they choose not to invest the necessary effort or because they lack the aspiration to succeed. This lack of aspiration can only be caused by their lack of character, or perhaps their stupidity and their failure to understand the benefits of investing in effort.

However, I don’t believe any of this adequately describes the average poor person. While some may indeed lack aspiration or perseverance, there are many other things that stand in way of success. After all, we’ve just had a major global recession that has hurt many people who aren’t particularly lacking in aspiration or character. And even in the case of those who can reasonably be accused of personal failings, we should admit that there can be a vicious circle at work. If people are continuously told that only intelligence, character and personality matter, and that all other external causes of poverty are discredited because society provides the opportunities to succeed, then people will start to believe that their predicament can’t be changed. It’s hard if not impossible to change one’s intelligence, character and personality. So why would you aspire to change it? If narratives about the poverty of aspirations are repeated often enough, the poor start to believe them. They internalize a sense of their own worthlessness. So, why try? A lack of aspiration, to the extent that it exists, follows directly from repeated stories about a lack of aspiration.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (37): Luck Egalitarianism

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that focuses on the injustice of bad luck, and one type of bad luck in particular: it wants to eliminate as far as possible the impact on people’s lives of bad luck that falls on them through no fault or choice of their own. One type of luck that we don’t bring on ourselves is the luck – or lack of it – associated with the circumstances into which we are born. We don’t deserve the circumstances, family, class or country of our birth. We don’t even deserve our talents and abilities (or lack of them), to the extent that these are not developed through effort.

There’s a natural lottery (the lottery that decides which talents and other biological potentials or inabilities we are born with) and a social lottery – as Rawls called it – (the lottery that decides which political, social and economic circumstances we are born into, including our family and country of birth). Bad luck in either of these lotteries can lead to vastly unequal opportunities and outcomes, none of which we deserve.

Luck egalitarianism states that only those inequalities that are wholly attributable to the responsible choices we make, and not to differences in our unchosen circumstances or abilities, are morally acceptable. The focus on responsible choices means that, once you’re an adult and capable of responsible choices, luck egalitarianism considers that its work is done. Its focus is on birth and early life, because that’s when misfortune of circumstances and nature take effect, and that’s when their unequal consequences have to be corrected. Opportunities have to be equalized. What people do in adult life with their equalized opportunities is their responsibility and of no concern to society or justice.

There are two moral intuitions at play here:

  • It’s a bad thing for people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. People shouldn’t be disadvantaged if they don’t deserve it.
  • It’s a good thing for people to be better off than others if that advantage is the result of their efforts. People should be rewarded when that’s what they deserve.

In other words, we should avoid unjust punishment and promote just reward. Inequalities and different opportunities that are the result of luck rather than choices are unjust. Inequalities produced by merit are just.

In the ideal luck egalitarian society, there are no inequalities in people’s life prospects except those that arise through processes of voluntary choice or faulty conduct, for which the agents involved can reasonably be held responsible. Richard Arneson (source)

That means, positively stated, that disadvantages for which a person is not responsible and which result merely from bad luck, establish a claim to correction or, if correction is impossible (e.g. blindness), compensation (e.g. provision of guide dogs).

[I]t is the responsibility of society – all of us regarded collectively – to alter the distribution of goods and evils that arises from the jumble of lotteries that constitutes human life as we know it … Distributive justice stipulates that the lucky should transfer some or all of their gains due to luck to the unlucky. Richard Arneson (source)

Some such disadvantages are physical disabilities, lack of talent, inadequate parents, being born in a poor African country etc. All other disadvantages, inequalities or differences are the outcome of choice and are therefore the individual’s responsibility. She should bear the costs of her own choices and can’t demand compensation. And when compensation is required, it should come only from that part of others’ good fortune that is undeserved.

If we manage to redress or compensate inequalities resulting from luck, the luck egalitarianism perspective can accept all remaining inequalities, because those remaining are deemed to be the result of people’s own choices and relative merit. Only equality of opportunity counts. Once people are adults, and all opportunities have been equalized, no further intervention is needed.

Some problems

Luck egalitarianism is appealing because of its focus on undeserved misfortune. We are appalled by people suffering from circumstances or endowments which they don’t deserve because they didn’t choose them and were simply born with them. It’s also appealing because, contrary to many other egalitarian theories, it provides room for merit, personal responsibility and choice.

However, luck egalitarianism is also problematic. First of all, it doesn’t seem right to abandon people who suffer deeply because of their own choices. Even if suffering is people’s own fault there are times when it is morally required to help them. Not always of course, because we don’t want to give people incentives to act irresponsibly (moral hazard etc.), but sometimes. So luck egalitarianism seems incomplete, to say the least, because it offers no aid to those it labels as irresponsible, whatever misery they happen to find themselves in.

Does it offer aid to those who act responsibly but have bad luck anyway? For example, those who chose to take a risk in a very prudent fashion, but ended up miserably because they misunderstood the risks, because the risks were unknowable, or because a risk is a risk after all? Some versions of luck egalitarianism do, fortunately, but that means they have to complicate the theory: luck has to become a much broader concept than simply the lottery of birth or nature.

And it’s a serious complication: if more kinds of bad luck than simply bad luck at birth or bad luck because of nature are unjust, then we can only abandon people who have acted very carelessly. People who, after prudent assessment of risk, engaged in an activity but suffered a bad outcome notwithstanding an initial positive assessment of risk, can demand compensation of their bad luck, like people having the misfortune of being born blind or in a poor family or without talent. None of them deserve their bad luck or are responsible for it. The imprudent, however, still deserve what they get. They can’t be said to have bad luck since they engaged in an activity knowing full well the risks. But how can we possibly assess the level of prudence? Doesn’t it mean that we have to take people at their word? That doesn’t sound very practical. And how is this extended version of luck egalitarianism different from normal egalitarianism? It seems to encompass almost as much equality.

Luck egalitarianism is not only unnecessarily cruel in some cases – unnecessarily because we often can do something to help the undeserving sufferers – but also dangerous. It’s not always so clear whether people act responsibly or not. That means that luck egalitarians risk abandoning a miserable person deemed to have acted irresponsibly, when in reality – who knows? – her misery was perhaps not (entirely) her own responsibility. For example, a person can have an unknown genetic predisposition to risk taking. So she will only appear to act irresponsibly.

Because of the very common difficulty to separate responsible actions from irresponsible ones, luck egalitarianism provides an incentive to deny responsibility and to hide it. If you can convince people that you weren’t responsible, then you can claim compensation. This incentive in turn provides an incentive to the state – which is supposedly the agent who should correct for bad luck – to snoop and invade people’s privacy (even their genes) in order to separate the really responsible from the merely apparently responsible, or the prudent from the imprudent.

And also those who really have bad luck aren’t treated very fairly by luck egalitarianism. In the words of Elisabeth Anderson: it offers humiliating aid to those it labels innately inferior. People who have had bad luck in the natural or social lottery of birth have to reveal to the whole of society that they have no talent, for example.

Another problem with luck egalitarianism is the exclusive preoccupation with inequalities resulting from luck. What about inequalities resulting from government policy, capitalism, discrimination etc. Oppression and discrimination are replaced by bad luck as the main egalitarian concern. The natural inequality in the distribution of luck overshadows the artificial inequalities resulting from social interaction. This is quite a loss, indicating again that luck egalitarianism is at best an incomplete theory.

This problem with luck egalitarianism has to do with vagueness of “choice” in the theory. Elisabeth Anderson again: if a robber offers someone a choice between her money and her life, is the outcome just? According to luck egalitarianism the answer is “yes” because the outcome is not the result of the lottery of birth or bad luck, but the result of choice. The fact that inequalities are the product of choices hardly justifies them: a choice within a set of options does not justify the set of options itself. More relevantly for equality: the choices can be limited, not by a robber, but by racism for example.

So we need more than equality of opportunity at the start of life; equality also means focusing on institutional arrangements that protect, widen and equalize people’s choices over the entire course of their lives (with the exception of those people who voluntarily, through their own choices or excessive risk taking, have reduced their choices; the exception to this exception being people who landed themselves in a situation in which “diminished choices” equals utter suffering, see above).

Also, what does “being born with” mean? Can you be born with a disagreeable character? And if it’s so disagreeable that nobody wants to give you a job or buy your goods or services, should you be compensated for this “bad luck”?

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)