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.

Racism (18): Human Rights and Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a set of policies aimed at improving the representation of women and minorities in education, business, employment and other sectors of society where these groups have traditionally been underrepresented or even completely excluded. Representation is improved by way of preferential selection.

For example, if students are normally selected on the basis of test scores, affirmative action will add other selection criteria such as race, gender, ethnicity, language, religion etc. Maybe in certain cases the initial selection criteria (e.g. test scores) are dumped altogether because it’s assumed that they reflect racial bias or because past discrimination makes it difficult for discriminated groups to achieve good test scores.

As you can see from this description, affirmative action policies are usually internal policies implemented by organizations or institutions (schools, businesses, representative bodies etc.) wishing to become more diverse and more representative of society at large, although they can also be imposed by the government. It’s common – but not necessary – for affirmative action policies to work with quotas, i.e. fixed percentages of selectees from historically disadvantaged groups.

Now, how should we evaluate affirmative action from the perspective of human rights? Some see affirmative action as a means to compensate for past human rights violations and past exclusion. A minority which has been discriminated in the past may still find it difficult today to achieve equality of opportunity today. Affirmative action is then intended to break a self-continuing pattern of exclusion. Combined with other policies such as reparations, welfare, anti-discrimination laws etc., affirmative action will hopefully achieve more equality. According to this view, affirmative action is necessary from a human rights perspective.

However, it’s equally possible to argue that affirmative action doesn’t help or even undermines human rights. An example of the way in which it may not help is given by its application in education. Those African-Americans who are most likely to profit from affirmative action in access to higher education institutions aren’t the most disadvantaged of their group. On the contrary, they are probably among those who already have sufficiently good educational credentials (a requirement to be eligible to higher education in the first place), and they are by definition not the least advantaged. Affirmative action doesn’t seem to serve equality.

The same setting provides another example of the way in which affirmative action fails to help or even harms the cause of human rights. White people who enter education are by definition relatively young and hence least likely to have contributed to past discrimination. Their exclusion from a university resulting from the preferential selection of African-Americans harms their right to equal treatment for no good reason. It looks like discrimination as a means to fight discrimination, racism as a means to fight racism. Affirmative action is then supposed to harm the rights of whites. It’s even possible that a poor white boy, who would profit a lot from acceptance by a highly ranked university, is excluded in order to benefit a rich black boy who will have a decent life even without any education. That seems perverse to many opponents of affirmative action who argue that all racial classifications should be abandoned and all selection policies should be color-blind.

There are a few possible counter-arguments against this position. It’s true that those who are excluded or not selected because of affirmative action programs probably aren’t individually responsible for the historical disadvantages imposed on the beneficiaries of those programs, and therefore shouldn’t “pay” for correcting those disadvantages. However, it may still be true that they benefit from continuing inequality. For example, if women are systematically excluded from some professions, men in general benefit from this exclusion, even if they haven’t excluded women themselves. (That’s an argument made by Mary Anne Warren among others). Also, if African-Americans have traditionally been excluded from higher quality educational institutions, it’s likely that the better test scores presented by whites and required to enter university do not simply represent higher ability. Discrimination has benefited and continues to benefit whites in terms of test scores, even those whites who are not in the least responsible for the substandard basic education received by blacks. Demanding that only test scores be used as a criterion for selection in universities is not the way to avoid discrimination (of whites) but the way to cement discrimination (of blacks).

Moreover, even if it’s true that some whites are unjustly discriminated against by affirmative action programs, one might argue that this is a small price to pay for correcting a much higher number of cases of anti-black discrimination. Although personally I’m weary of sacrificing the rights of some for the benefit of others.

Also, to the extent that it’s true that affirmative action means fighting discrimination with discrimination, we should realize that the two kinds of “discrimination” are not at all the same. The type of discrimination that affirmative action is supposed to correct is a discrimination motivated by racial animus and intended to stigmatize some people as “inferior”. If affirmative action is a kind of discrimination, it’s one that has other motives. Whites who are excluded from a university because of affirmative action programs aren’t excluded because we believe that whites are inferior or because we don’t like them. However, it’s probably cold comfort for whites to know that their discrimination is not motivated by hatred.

And finally, affirmative action can be defended on a number of other consequentialist grounds that have nothing to do with the possible compensation or correction of injustices. For instance, allowing more blacks in law school can bring about a justice system that is seen as more legitimate by black citizens. More blacks in the police force may result in police departments that are more legitimate, more acceptable and more authoritative to black people. More female CEOs or professors may inspire more young women to follow their lead or to be more successful generally. More blacks in medical school may result in better healthcare for communities that are currently not well served. Diversity in school may have some educational advantages: proximity to people from other races may reduce racism and may better prepare students for their future lives in a diverse society. In general, a society that is representative in all fields is much more legitimate in the eyes of all citizens. And, last but not least, diversity improves the functioning of the marketplace of ideas. So, if all of this or some of this is true, affirmative action can yield more overall respect for human rights.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (19): Fun With Percentages

A certain company discovered that 40% of all sick days were taken on a Friday or a Monday. They immediately clamped down on sick leave before they realized their mistake. Forty percent represents two days out of a five day working week and is therefore a normal spread. Nothing to do with lazy employees wishing to extend their weekends. They are just as sick on any other day.

A more serious example, now, more relevant also to human rights:

The stunning statistic that 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock is driven, to be sure, by the fact that many poor black women have a lot of children. But it turns out it is also driven by the fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women. (source)

The fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women obviously inflates the percentage of black babies born out of wedlock. If married black women had just as many children as married white women, the proportion or percentage of black babies out of wedlock would drop mechanically. But why do they have fewer children? It seems it’s a matter of being able to afford children.

It’s well known that the black middle class has a lot less in the way of assets than whites of similar income levels – hardly surprising, given the legacy of generations of discrimination and poverty. But that also means that things that a lot of white middle class people take for granted – like help with a down-payment on a house when you have your first kid – are less available. Middle class black parents have less in the way of a parental safety net than their white equivalents, so they’re less likely to have a second kid. (source)

The 70%, when compared to the national average which is about 40%, may seem high, but it’s artificially inflated by the relatively low number of black babies in wedlock. So before you go out yelling (see here for example) that all the poverty and educational problems of African-Americans are caused by the fact that too many of their children are born and raised out of wedlock, and presumably by single parents (although the latter doesn’t follow from the former), and that it’s better to promote “traditional marriage” instead of affirmative action, welfare etc., you may want to dig a bit deeper first. If you do, you’ll paint a more nuanced picture than the one about dysfunctional black families and irresponsible black fathers.

Nevertheless, while the percentages may not be as high as they seem at first glance, it remains true that black babies still make up a disproportionate share of kids born out of wedlock. And if “born out of wedlock” means “single parents” (usually mothers) then this can be a problem. Although many single parents do a great job raising their children (and often a better job than many “normal” families), it can be tough and the risks of ending up in poverty are much higher. And yet, even this is not enough to justify sermons about irresponsible black fathers. Maybe the misguided war on drugs, racial profiling and incarceration statistics have something to do with it.

Racism (4): Competition v Racial Bias

Gary Becker looked at the well-documented fact that African-Americans in the U.S. earn less than whites, partly because on average they are less well educated. But even if corrected for this, there remains an unexplainable difference in wages. Unexplainable apart from racial bias. There have been many studies that have proven the existence of bias. For example, firms are 1.5 times as likely to interview someone for a job if they think the person is white, even if all other characteristics such as education and experience are equal.

The interesting thing about Becker is that he goes beyond education, positive discrimination or labor legislation in his search for solutions. He mentions increased competition between firms. A racially biased firm will only hire a white who is more expensive and perhaps even less qualified than a black, if this firm is not under pressure from competitors. If its market is opened to competition, then other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the black guy/gal. The biased firm would then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.

So this sounds promising, and market freedom is beneficial for other reasons as well, so it’s worth to pursue it. But don’t expect too much of the free market. There’s no invisible hand, leading those motivated by selfish motives to destroy racism without really wanting to. Much more needs to be done.

Discrimination (1)

Discrimination, in its non-political and non-legal sense, simply means the recognition of differences. In the political and legal sense, it means unjustifiable differences in treatment between groups of people, most often the unjustifiable denial of the equal enjoyment of human rights.

Groups of people are discriminated because they have certain group-specific attributes that set them apart from the rest of society and that warrant, in the eyes of the people who are discriminating, less favorable treatment. One can make the following distinctions:

  • Discrimination can come in different degrees, affecting large or small numbers of people to a large or small extent: from government policy to an unspoken mentality of a small part of the population, and everything in between (such as states not acting to counter discrimination, very active and outspoken discrimination in some parts of the community, entrenched cultural practices such as the caste system etc.).
  • It can be exercised in different ways. People may be discriminated on the grounds of their race, gender etc. They can be discriminated in relatively harmless ways (denial of a promotion because of a likely pregnancy for example) or very brutal ways (slavery, denying of equal education etc.). They can also be discriminated in many different fields of life: education, employment, justice, health care etc.

Some people have the misfortune of finding themselves in a state which has an overt and active policy of discrimination, and in different discriminated groups at the same time (black lesbians in Apartheid South-Africa for example). As a result, they may also be discriminated in different fields of life at the same time (employment, family law, education etc.).

There are many types of discrimination, and the concept of discrimination is often linked to others such as racism, agism, sexism, xenophobia, intolerance, religious fundamentalism, genocide, ethnic cleansing etc. Whereas all these phenomena undoubtedly have a dose of discrimination, they are not the necessary result of discrimination. Discrimination can be much more limited.

One can distinguish between types of discrimination according to the groups that are discriminated, and the ways in which these groups are discriminated.

Groups:

  • racial discrimination
  • gender discrimination
  • discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation
  • discrimination based on one’s language, culture or national origin
  • discrimination based on one’s religion or one’s status within a religion
  • discrimination based on one’s political convictions
  • age discrimination
  • health discrimination (e.g. discrimination of HIV patients, disabled persons or obese persons)
  • etc. (when it comes to cruelty, man’s imagination has no limits I’m afraid)

Ways:

  • economic discrimination (e.g. persistent differences in poverty levels between groups)
  • employment discrimination (e.g. discrimination in career opportunities, pay, “Berufsverbot” etc.)
  • housing discrimination
  • family law discrimination (e.g. the inability of homosexuals to marry or to adopt)
  • education discrimination, different levels or quality of education for different groups
  • discrimination of the access to public service or elected positions
  • judicial discrimination, discrimination in the justice system
  • health discrimination, different levels or quality of healthcare for different groups
  • cultural practices such as honor killings, female genital mutilation,…
  • legal discrimination such as Jim Crow or segregation
  • etc.

Causes of discrimination:

  • racism, sexism etc.
  • a history of discrimination, creating a burden on future generations
  • immigration
  • xenophobia
  • recession or economic scarcity
  • education
  • cultural practices (e.g. the caste system)
  • religious doctrine
  • legislation (e.g. the Jim Crow laws or other types of legally enforced discrimination)
  • etc.

Article 2 of the Universal Declaration prohibits discrimination:

“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Although poverty has many causes, discrimination is undoubtedly one of them. Large differences in wealth between groups (for example racial groups) may indicate the existence of discrimination.

Statistics on the differences between races in incarceration or execution rates may indicate the existence of discrimination in the justice system, although these differences may have other causes besides discrimination, e.g. differences in poverty rates (see above), differences in levels of education etc. Of course, the latter differences may be caused by discrimination so that discrimination is indirectly the cause of the differences in the application of justice. Here again are some data on the situation in the US, showing that blacks, although they make up only 12% of the population, account for more than 1 in 3 of the prison population and of the executions. 5% of black men are in jail, compared to less than 1% of white men.

 

 

Blacks are also about twice as likely as whites to be a victim of a crime.