Beyond Equality of Opportunity

by Martin Butler

Both morally and politically, equality is a powerful ideal. Over the last two centuries it has been one of the fundamental demands of most movements aimed at improving society. The French Revolution is the paradigm case. Despite its enduring relevance, however, equality has always been a somewhat vague ideal. It was hardly a problem for the revolutionaries in France, where the difference between the aristocracy and the sans-culottes was so stark that further elaboration was unnecessary.  Over the years, however, the question ‘equality of what?’ has become more pressing, and many answers have been highlighted: equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, equal opportunities, equality under the law, equality of outcome, to name but a few. Rather than just looking at these answers, perhaps we should start by identifying the source of the ideal of equality’s ethical power, and see where this leads us.

It seems to me that there are at least two powerful ethical justifications, which, although overlapping lead in somewhat different directions. The problem is that one of these has tended to dominate over the other. One source arises from an obvious principle of rationality. It is clearly irrational to treat people differently for irrelevant reasons. Parentage, accent, race, age, wealth, gender, social class, sexual orientation, religious belief, physical attractiveness, etc. are in most cases completely irrelevant to a person’s capacity to play a particular role in society. In the past, privilege, tradition and prejudice have been the main reasons why irrelevant factors have been treated as relevant in the selection of individuals for particular roles, especially those associated with power and prestige. Only with the enlightenment did the irrationality of this tendency begin to be felt, and ever since, there has been slow but steady progress towards disregarding it.  Of course, it is rational not to treat people equally with regards to factors that are relevant to that role. We have no problem in discriminating when it comes to giving some people and not others jobs on the basis of their ability to perform those jobs, or giving some people and not others a place on a course of study based on their capacity benefit from that course. But there must be equality of opportunity to be considered for those roles. The irrelevances listed above should not interfere with the process of getting to the starting blocks, even if it is clear that not everyone can win the race.

This compelling narrative of ‘equal opportunities’ has become the pre-eminent expression of the ideal of equality in modern liberal democracies, a conception of basic fairness which is about removing barriers and creating a level playing field. In recent years this has led to a focus on policies that attempt to create this level playing field. This powerful ethical argument is supported by pragmatic considerations. Nobody wants a doctor chosen from a limited pool of candidates. Equal opportunities allow us to get the right people onto the starting blocks so that the one who wins is more likely to be the fastest, rather than the fastest from a skewed and therefore limited selection. Equal opportunities is both fair recruitment and smart recruitment.

However, the story starts to get more complicated if we pursue this ideal further still.

Consider the following. It is a clear principle of ethics that I cannot be held responsible for something over which I have no control. I can be held responsible for the cancellation of a holiday if it results from my failure to book the accommodation, but not if the hotel which I booked unexpectedly goes out of business. Similarly, a child has no control over the family they are bought up in despite the fact that we know that upbringing has a major impact on his or her development. In reality we don’t have an equal opportunity to benefit from an optimal family environment. So here we are concerned with acquiring qualities that are relevant to excelling at a particular role, rather than irrelevant factors acting as a barrier to that role. This issue is not about discrimination that prevents me getting on to the starting blocks; it is about equal opportunity to become the person who could win the race.  Even before reaching school, children experience differences in intellectual and emotional support which have long term effects on cognitive, emotional and social development. Add to this differences in financial support, peer groups, cultural enrichment, parental connections, adverse experiences and schooling, and it becomes clear that even the most stringent equal opportunities policies could never counter the far from level playing field on which each generation lives out its lives. To use an existentialist expression, we are thrown into the world, with no control over where we land. (I have focused here on the issue of nurture although similar points could be made in relation to genetic endowment.)

The radical individualist might argue that with sufficient determination the individual can overcome the most impoverished, dysfunctional or marginalised background. Provided he or she is given some level of opportunity, it is possible for anyone to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’, or so the argument goes. This might well be true but is beside the point. Acknowledging that with extra effort it is still possible to win on a field that slopes against you does not change the fact that the field is not level. The odds are still very much stacked against you.

A utopian response might claim that a radical transformation of society could produce a perfectly level playing field. No doubt much could be done with regards to family support and improved education to enhance the experiences of a child from a dysfunctional, marginalised or impoverished family.  However, short of bringing up children communally, as Plato suggests in the Republic (which would surely be undesirable for all sorts of obvious reasons) equality of nurture seems impossible to achieve.

A third response might be to devise government policies aimed at compensating people who have had a far from optimal upbringing (such policies are based on what is known as ‘luck egalitarianism’). Positive discrimination for university entry would be an example of such a policy. These policies will, however, inevitable be too broad brush, picking up on whole racial groups, for example.  Disadvantage is a complex and fine-grained phenomenon even if it does correlate with particular categories of individuals. Such policies can be counterproductive, and very difficult to implement without producing their own unfairness and divisiveness. And intuitively it seems an odd way to move towards greater equality by instituting policies which embed inequality. Again, this is a sticking plaster for a deeply ingrained phenomena within human society.

The resigned response, which seems reasonable enough, might be, ‘well life is unfair, we just have to get used to it’.  The reality of this should cause us to reflect on the whole equal opportunities approach. Why do we give so much weight to the notion of an opportunity? What exactly is it?  Surely an opportunity is special in the sense that it is not always available and not available to everyone. It allows, or at least might allow the beneficiary to ‘get on’. We feel that opportunities are things we ought to take. To pass one by is to lack drive or ambition. But obvious questions arise here. What if the opportunities available are not ones you want to take? What if you know you would not succeed, or enjoy the benefits? Who defines what an opportunity is? One person’s opportunity might be another person’s nightmare. Why should drive and ambition be given such a high value? Can’t you be a good citizen without drive and ambition? In fact, what if you are not into ‘opportunities’ and ‘getting on’ at all and would prefer to stand on the side lines and watch the game, whether or not the playing field is level.

One problem with the language of opportunities is that it casts society as a giant selection process by which individuals improve their status in the hierarchy. Equality opportunity can be consistent with gross inequality of status and wealth after all; indeed it can be used to justify that inequality for if we believe it exists we can see a person’s lowly position as a result of their failure to seize an opportunity. In addition, equality of opportunity has within it the seeds of inequality of opportunity. A good example of this is the acting profession(in the UK) over the last 60 years. In the 1960s opportunities opened up for working class acting talent. However, that generation formed a new acting elite whose offspring have disproportionately dominated acting roles in the next generation.

None of this suggests a move to equality of outcome, which tends, I think, towards conformity and rigidity, and can bring about its own unfairness. Neither am I suggesting that equal opportunities should be abandoned as a recruitment policy. Rather, I am arguing that it has a far more limited application than is often supposed, and certainly cannot be used as an ethical principle around which a whole society should be built.

The second source from which the notion of equality gains its power is, I think, more fundamental than the first. This is the notion of intrinsic worth, the roots of which are to be found in Christianity: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Kant gave this ideal its full philosophical expression in his categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”  All human beings should be treated as ends in themselves because they have intrinsic worth. Expressed in terms of equality this takes us to a principle of equality of care, rather than equality of opportunity.  All human beings matter, and they matter equally. Crucially, intrinsic worth is unconditional, it is not dependent on whether or not you take the opportunities available, or even care about opportunities. Care has two aspects. A caring society is one which has our backs when things go wrong – the NHS is the obvious example of equality of care in action. In social policy terms it leads to the ideal of a safety net, a minimal level of care below which no one should fall. The more positive side is that a caring society should aspire to enable us all to become the best we can through education, recreation, and career options.

We might say that equality of care encompasses equality of opportunity since having an attitude of care for someone implies wanting the best for them and this, amongst other things, means removing unjust barriers as far as possible. However, it is a wider principle. As we have said, opportunities are about getting on in some way. Caring is more fundamental since it is about promoting well-being, which clearly is not equivalent to career advancement, or any other kind of opportunity-taking activity. Equality of care plays down the particular role you have within society, it plays down your place in the hierarchy (without denying that hierarchy is inevitable), and it plays down the extent of your success (without belittling success and achievement). It plays up the simple fact that you are a member of society. The ethic of equality of care is not a response to the underlying unfairness of life illustrated above.  It is not an attempt to compensate those who have had bad luck (in either nature or nurture). As far as possible, we should strive to provide a level playing field while acknowledging that there is a sense in which this ideal is unattainable, so to some extent at least we should nullify the effects of the playing field altogether, level or not.  Equality of care, therefore, is about de-emphasising the role of opportunities, career advancement, and the significance of the place you occupy within the social hierarchy.

To put flesh on the bone, we need to try and develop an image of how we might conceive of a caring society which embodies the equality of care ethic. Perhaps the most powerful philosophical narrative around which western liberal democracies have been built is that of the social contract.  This ideal can take various forms but at its simplest it can be characterised as an exchange relationship between the individual and society. This has an intuitive appeal, for we can think of ourselves as contributing to society in order to gain the benefits it offers. Ultimately, however, this image is misplaced. It encourages us to think of individuals as being either net burdens on society or as net benefactors.  Those who are perceived as taking more out than they put in are stigmatised, those who are seen to contribute more than they take out are lauded. But these calculations imply that society has some further purpose, the achievement of which is either hindered or helped by its citizens, just as a football team might be either helped by good players or hindered by bad players. But surely the aim of society is the well-being of its citizens, so describing some as a burden is like seeing less able school pupils as a burden on the school. And there is an unwarranted assumption here that each individual can have the same kind of contractual relationship with the whole of society that he or she can have with other individuals within society.  Relations of contract between individuals require the stage-setting provided by the society in which they take place (contracts cannot exist within a social vacuum). The society itself cannot therefore be one of the contractors. The social contract view encourages us to think of self-sufficient individuals standing outside of society and entering into a contract with that whole society.  Individuals are to a large extent a product of their societies on which they depend, and so it is difficult to see how they can have a contract with those societies. None of this means that virtues such as generosity, co-operation, responsibility, determination should not be encouraged, and vices such as selfishness, meanness, and irresponsibility, should not be discouraged. But these virtues and vices cannot be understood in terms of an exchange relation, they are simply good and bad character traits.

Rather than the image of a contract it seems far more plausible to see the relationship between an individual and society as more like that between a family member and the family – here I am drawing on our intuitions of what a good family looks like. After all, for most people the family provides them with their primal experience of care. Crucially the relation you have with your family is not contractual; it is not one where we tot up the costs and benefits to ensure they at least balance.  Those who do attempt to reduce families to contracts are surely corrupting what such relations ought to be. And the assumption that each child should matter equally is surely a deeply ingrained ideal. Unlike being a party to a social contract, you do not (or at least should not) have to earn the care you are due from your family. And, conversely, other members of your family should not have to earn care from you. Families involve unconditional relationships, or at least the conditions should stretch a long way before they break (the biblical story of the prodigal son illustrates this). This surely has to be a key characteristic of a caring society. I am not here suggesting that a society is a family (still less a tribe), but if we are looking for an image of the kind of relationships society involves, I suggest that we should look towards the ideal of a family rather than that of a contract.

The main criticism of the care ethic is summed up in the image of the ‘nanny state’. A state, so the argument goes, that is for ever fussing over the well-being of its citizens infantilizes them and takes away individual responsibility. I find this an odd criticism as it could be argued that any state intervention is evidence of the nanny state. There is no clear criterion which would allow us to distinguish between a nanny state policy and a non-nanny state policy. The prohibition against hard drugs could be interpreted as a nanny state intervention, as could the NHS. And when critics talk of ‘taking responsibility’, it is unclear what follows from this. If this means accepting the consequences of your own actions and not expecting others to run to your aid, it leads to absurdities.  We all know that driving is potentially dangerous. So does taking responsibility for the act of driving mean that you should not expect the ambulance to come to your aid if you are involved in an accident? Is that  failing to take responsibility for your own actions? We should of course act responsibly – which is to be distinguished from the idea of ‘taking responsibility for your own actions’ outlined above. The assumption often made in the nanny state argument is that if society adopts an ethic of care then this will encourage irresponsibility. But this just seems wrong. To return to the family analogy, the claim that you are more likely to act irresponsibly if you are brought up in a caring supportive family is clearly nonsense. On the contrary, irresponsibility is far more likely to result from a dysfunctional and uncaring family. The trouble with the image of the nanny state is that it blurs the distinction between supportive and caring, and interfering and overbearing. A caring parent (or indeed a caring nanny) is caring and supportive without being interfering and overbearing. This means judgment calls which might be difficult; the distinction is not always obvious but there clearly is a distinction. Mrs Thatcher famously claimed there is no such thing as society, “there are individual men and women and there are families”. This is often taken to be evidence of her uncaring individualism. But the key point is its paradoxical nature. She clearly recognised that individuals cannot exist in isolation since they have families. What she failed to recognise is that likewise families do not exist in isolation. They can only thrive in well-functioning societies.

The global pandemic has forced us to re-assess the value of so called ‘lowly’ jobs in society. Those working as delivery drivers, refuse collectors or as care assistants are not in high-status jobs, but their importance has been shown to be crucial to the workings of society – far more crucial than many higher status jobs. Perhaps this has made us see that caring for everyone, high or low, should be a core ethic of any civilised society. It is good to take opportunities and to get on, but perhaps we need to stand back and see that this is by no means the most important thing in life.


Martin Butler has a PhD from Sheffield University in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein and Frege, and has also studied Nietzsche and Schopenhauer at the University of Wales. However, he is now more interested in ancient, political and moral philosophy. He taught philosophy and social science subjects for many years, as well as playing several roles in A level philosophy examining, and has edited an A level philosophy text book. Recently retired, he spends his time reading and doing woodwork.