"Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why." - Bernard Baruch

Tag: equality

Against Luck-Driven Equality of Opportunity

In his work, Against Equality of Opportunity, Cavanagh introduces and provides valid points for his argument against equality of job distribution and the value of equal job opportunity. His multipart argument begins with the establishment that equal job distribution is not feasible due to the fact that not everyone is able to have equally good/satisfactory jobs. Consequently, he determines that if the goal is to pursue equality in the economic sphere, the only kind of equality possible is that of job opportunity. For the remainder of his argument, he appeals to the notion that equal job opportunity entails an “equal chance to become unequal” and proceeds to attack this type of equality in precisely two ways. First, he concludes that the egalitarian aim to pursue equality of job opportunity fails in that it stems from a value of competition and identifying peoples’ talents as opposed to stemming from a value of equality. In this case, he claims that equality is guaranteed in merely a procedural sense and not in any robust sense making the principle fundamentally anti-egalitarian. Second, he determines that if this is not the case, then equality of job opportunity is too demanding in that it fails to acknowledge that equal life chances and equal luck are impossible and therefore it, as a principle, cannot hold (Cavanagh, 97). This latter conclusion is one I wish to critique. That is, his rejection of equality of job opportunity on the grounds that it is unable to account for instances of unequal life chances and unequal luck. As I will later show, this particular claim is not one that carries much strength and moreover, it does not follow that an egalitarian means to establish a just society, that is, one in which everyone gets what they deserve and no one gets what they don’t deserve, should be abandoned. 

Cavanagh’s idea of equal job opportunity supposing an “equal chance to become unequal” can be taken very literally and one may argue that in the case of a diverse group of people being given an equal chance to apply for a job which only some are qualified for is not really giving them equal opportunity because they were not given equal resources for success to begin with. However, Cavanagh addresses this point and in response, states that even if it were the case that people could be given equal starting positions and equal resources to have a chance at becoming the best (for a job, etc.), equal life chances and equal luck are impossible and therefore, establishing equality in this respect isn’t possible (Cavanagh, 137). To be more concrete with this conclusion, Cavanagh argues against the egalitarian claim that “it is unfair for some people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own”, that is, that it is unfair for anyone to be worse off than anyone else unless they have done something to deserve it. Conclusively, he claims that under this light, it would follow that someone having bad luck isn’t deserving of it because they had no control over it, and similarly, someone having good luck would be equally not deserving of it. He finds something wrong with this idea that one should not feel deserving of the outcomes of a fortunate life circumstance that was beyond their control as since any kind of luck is impossible to control, he ultimately finds something wrong with the principle of equal job opportunity (Cavanagh, 88). That is, that it is not feasible because it cannot guarantee equal life chances and equal instances of luck. I would like to argue however, that because luck is impossible to control, that it should therefore not be part of establishing equality. Further, I would like to point out that focusing on what can’t be controlled is counterproductive to focusing on what can be controlled. From the view of inequality being a result of the inevitability of luck, it does not follow that equal job opportunity can’t be ensured and that everyone can’t be given an equal chance to succeed in spite of the uncertain and unfair events that may take place. In his conclusion, Cavanagh misses the point of the egalitarian claim that “it is unfair for some people to be worse off than others through no fault of their own”. What this claim aims to convey is that it is unfair for anyone to be worse off than anyone else in the scope of what can be controlled by society unless they have done something to deserve it. This is the egalitarian attempt to promote justice and to make sure that people aren’t made to suffer the consequence of that which they did not decide for themselves and was not a product of an unpreventable life chance or turn of events. It seems irrational to think that because luck cannot be controlled, an effort can’t or shouldn’t be made to ensure that everyone has equal job opportunity within the scope of what is obtainable. People should be given at least the resources they need to have equal chances despite what good or bad luck life may bring them. For this reason, I would like to appeal to the notion of luck egalitarianism and argue that on the side of justice, variations of how well-off people are should be determined solely by the choices they make and not the differences in their unchosen life circumstances. On this account and in light of wanting to accomplish a just society as the one defined in the introduction of this essay, it seems more reasonable to accept a principle of equality of opportunity that excludes instances of luck as opposed to rejecting it entirely for things that cannot be controlled.

Cavanagh’s argument, despite raising significant points, lacks strength, particularly in his justification for rejecting equality of job opportunity. He is too quick to dismiss this principle and fails to consider any other means of salvaging it. Moreover, he is flawed in the assumption that the impossibility of equal life chances and equal luck infers the impossibility of equal job opportunity. It would be unreasonable to let that which governs a principle of equality for establishing social justice be something beyond human control, and therefore it should not play a role in rejecting it. That members of society will inevitably be subject to varying life circumstances is not a valid reason to not attempt to ensure that they are given equal regard and provided with at least the minimum resources needed to achieve success.

Reference: Cavanagh, Matt. Against Equality of Opportunity. Oxford University Press, 2007.