Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome

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«I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character » by Martin Luther King

Two concepts have become part of the common-sense in current thinking about equality, they are considered to be opposite concepts by a various of sociologist, the first one is the foundational principle of meritocratic societies, and defines equality in terms of opportunity, to understand this form of equality, it is mandatory to examine the different conceptions of the idea, which specify the agents, obstacles and goals. The second form focuses on the outcome, some defines this form by the narrower metric of income and wealth, but I am more interested in the broad spectrum of resources, occupations, and roles.

First of all, let’s focus on the definition of an opportunity, which is a situation when a person may, if he chooses, engage in some effortful activity which is desirable either instrumentally - as an instrument to achieve a specific goal - or for its own sake. It is very important to make the difference between an opportunity and a chance in which a person might or is likely to obtain a desirable goal or possession, but where the results do not depend only on his efforts.

The equality of opportunity invokes other concepts, such as fairness, because it creates a level playing-field where people’s social circumstances should not differentially affect their life chances in any serious way (Mason, 2004). This means that a particular set of obstacles should, or should not, be allowed to differentiate the individuals’ achievement of some object. This does not mean that individuals face the same obstacles to achieve the goal.

For example, in the labor field, equality of opportunity between some group of job candidates exists, when the candidates are filtered without reference to particular characteristics such as race or gender. On the given conception, then, race and gender must not constitute obstacles that differentiate between candidates for equality of opportunity to exist.

In terms of education, equality of opportunity is achieved when everyone is accorded the same chance to develop his or her capabilities and to be acknowledged for personal accomplishments regardless of characteristics such as gender, religion, political stance, color of the skin, or social background, that is, characteristics which are not related to personal performance.

Equality of opportunity can also be defined by extending the concept of liberty, in this case, equality of opportunity exists when two persons are free from the same limitations or obstacles which could prevent them from achieving the same objective. In other words, equality of opportunity depends on a desirable goal which no prohibitions or obstacles could prevent any individual from pursuing this specific goal.

Nevertheless, equality of opportunity is criticized because in some extent it rewards the lucky and penalizes the unlucky. As some sociologists (Peter Singer, John Schaar) consider that not everyone was born with the same talents or abilities, and in the society that values those specific talents. Therefore, this early given chance, challenges the notion that a person deserves any advantages because of their abilities.

As an example, John Schaar mentions the case of people born with disabilities, who were born with more obstacles and limitations to develop certain skills, or achieve a certain education level, which makes them in a disadvantage comparing to other individuals because of their simple luck in life.

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In consequence, we must think about another form of equality that has the ability to compensates the differences in abilities, wealth or talents in which the individual has no impact on. Also, considering the example of employment, and specifically the female participation in the job market, although it has expanded post World War II, reducing the gender wage gap in many countries, significant inequalities continue to exist in regards to access to jobs, unequal occupational choices and earning gaps between the sexes. Under this circumstance, it has become imperative to find another way to enforce the ideal of equality.

Another limit of the equality of opportunity is achieving democracy and better representation of the societies. As equality of opportunity does not guarantee the outcome and therefore the results and fair representation of all individuals of different origins, gender and background in the society because it takes under account only the skills and abilities related to fulfilling the objective.

To explain my point of view, let’s analyse the example illustrated in the article “What is equality of opportunity in education?” of Hugh Lazenby related to installing a new policy in the university demanding extra weight to applications from individuals of a specific racial group, which is Native Americans in this example. The reason behind this policy is that Native Americans are underrepresented in universities and in the positions of power in government, and by giving access to high education in the university for these individuals, it’s likely to increase representation of this individuals of a particular racial group, which will lead to a higher quality of democracy and better civic outcomes.

To me, in this example, equality for certain individuals with a specific racial group is obtained by forcing a quota in the university and giving extra weight to these specific candidates. This example could generate two type of scenarios:

  • Recruiting very talented Native Americans who previously did not have access to the university because inequalities regarding race, still exists and it is manifested in the university. Therefore, equality and representation of this group of individuals is improved by implementing a metric and possible way to evaluate equality. In consequence achieving a better representative democracy and breaking down the inequalities circle in order to achieve ideally the equality of opportunity. In this case outcome equality is a metric instrument for the university in the quest of opportunity equality as an ideal and preventing inequalities based on race in the university.
  • The second scenario, is indeed accepting candidates with a lower level of excellence comparing to individuals that could have been recruited if this policy was not established, but who have a high potential of development and achieving excellence. It seems to me that in this case Native Americans candidates were not able to achieve excellence, because they were not giving the opportunity to fulfil their full potential, and that is the same reason why they are underrepresented in the society. Therefore, this form of equality compensates the inequalities previously experienced by these individuals. In this case outcome equality is a metric instrument for the society in the quest of opportunity equality as an ideal and stopping inequalities based on race in the society. However, in this case the academic excellence of the university may be affected, because candidates are only selected based on their potential of achieving excellence which is a less guarantee then proven talent and ability.

To sum up this example, I consider that equality of outcome could be an instrument to install equality of opportunity in a society and special circumstances where specific individuals are underrepresented, which could mean inequalities are still existing either in education, job access … in the light of this analysis equality of outcome is a key measure of equality of opportunity. When the outcomes are representative of the society, it means that individuals did have equal opportunities, but If there is an analogical difference of outcome, it means that the opportunities were themselves unequal, in this case equality of outcome could be a way to overcome these inequalities.

Although, it should be taken under consideration that the difference of outcome could also be explained by reference to differences in personal preference in particular social groups, for example some argue that women care more about children than men, or have less of a taste for political power. Furthermore, these personal preferences could be seen as the motivations that push each individual to choose a goal that could be a job or field of activity. Even if I believe that these particular assumptions (regarding women) are only stereotypes that should not be taken under account in the pursue of equality, many social researches have demonstrated that motivations could be shared among a social group, making it even more difficult to analyze and build conclusions from outcome measuring.

Therefore, equality of outcome could be a complimentary tool to achieve equality of opportunity -which I personally consider as an ideal- in certain circumstances, where a social group, with the motivation to reach that opportunity, does not have access to it due to stereotypes and existing inequalities. But it also could generate inequalities if it eliminates or forbid access to talented individuals against less talented if motivation is not taken under consideration.

In conclusion, choosing between the two types of equality depends on the circumstances, needs a deep assessment of the situation, but also a clear understanding of the objectives of the equality we are trying to install. For example, in regards of a company, the objective of equality is to achieve a working atmosphere that encourages productivity and diversity, consequently companies are promoting equality of opportunities but with encouragement from top management of recruiting more diverse candidates as it was proved that diversity increase productivity and brings new and creative ideas to the table.

In politics and government, the objective is to have a well-represented society in order to achieve democracy, therefore a multitude of politicians try to include a representation for the minority social groups in their parties. As prime minister of Canada promoted the 50/50 gender quota in his cabinet to look like Canada. Using equality of outcome to achieve a better representation for his country.

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Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/equality-of-opportunity-vs-equality-of-outcome/
“Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/equality-of-opportunity-vs-equality-of-outcome/
Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/equality-of-opportunity-vs-equality-of-outcome/> [Accessed 23 Apr. 2024].
Equality of Opportunity vs Equality of Outcome [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Apr 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/equality-of-opportunity-vs-equality-of-outcome/

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