Should egalitarians care about fair equality of opportunity in unjust societies?

Almost everybody believes in equal opportunities (EO), that is, in a meritocratic allocation of jobs; and many endorse fair equality of opportunity (FEO) which, in addition to careers open to talent, demands that everybody’s talents be equally cultivated. Indeed, if fairness is the reason to support EO, then FEO is even more attractive. Many good people are outraged by lack of social mobility, and wish to level the playing field in order to make positions of advantage more equally available to talented women, racial minorities and people coming from less resourceful families.

At the same time, almost everybody agrees that there can be legitimate inequalities in the benefits attached to different jobs. People think this for various reasons; in the case of egalitarians, the reason is that inequalities in job benefits can be in the interest of the worst off: by attracting talent where it’s most efficiently used, they help to maximise social output. The bigger the common pie, the more there is to redistribute, and, if we share in a prioritarian fashion, even the worst off will be as well off as possible. However, to be fair, inequalities in benefits must also be attached to positions that are open to all under the conditions specified by the FEO principle. This justification of FEO is familiar from the work of John Rawls and, more recently, Tim Scanlon.

But what should we think about the value of FEO if prioritarian redistribution does not actually happen – if, for instance, the post-tax incomes display a degree of inequality that is incompatible with any egalitarian demands? Should egalitarians then still care about making positions of advantage open to all under the conditions specified by FEO? I think not.

First, consider what happens, in unjustly unequal societies, to FEO being instrumental in maximising social output. Often, in such societies talent is disproportionately put in the service of the (even trivial) interests of a few rich individuals: researchers looking for a cure for baldness may be paid better than those who seek cures for life-threatening diseases which affect exclusively the poor. Worse, sometimes talent is instrumental in perpetuating unjust practices: do we want to channel talent into tax-advising people who seek means to evade taxation? Into managing hedge funds? I’d rather see mediocre workers in many top positions. Sometimes, in unjust circumstances FEO can harm the worst off. But, more importantly, even if FEO was conductive to optimal social output in unjustly unequal societies, it would fail to advance justice if no adequate redistribution actually takes place. Absent proper redistribution, the very inequalities in benefits attached to different jobs remain impossible to justify to the worse off. As such, these inequalities are mere arbitrary advantages.

In particular, those positions of advantage which pay in excess of what justice permits should not exist in the first place. They should be abolished and replaced by positions that come with permissible pay-offs. But assume it is unfeasible to do this, nor, more generally, to operate a prioritarian redistribution; then, egalitarians have no reason to care about an allocation fo the good jobs by FEO.

For starters, no one can have a claim to those advantageous positions that are unjust – such as CEO of big corporations, or top positions in the entertainment industry, but possibly also many others. Hence, people who would perform best in the most advantageous jobs – the talented – often lack a claim to such positions.  Consider a quick analogy: if a group of thieves fail to distribute the loot amongst themselves in a meritocratic fashion, do the disadvantaged thieves have any complaint?

Further, a meritocratic allocation of jobs whose unequal rewards are arbitrary is a matter of moral indifference. Many positions of advantage in unjustly unequal societies are not so extravagantly compensated that they’d be abolished in a just society. But even in their case, meritocratic distribution is not vindicated by the reasons that support FEO in just circumstances. This is not to say that the distribution procedure for these positions is irrelevant. Nepotism and racial or sexual discrimination, for instance, are still objectionable. When arbitrary advantage is not eliminable, the only fair procedure to allocate it is seems to be some kind of lottery. “Some kind”, rather than a simple lottery, because, presumably, we still have reason to place weight on employee’s ability to do their job. If all positions were filled by incompetent workers, there would be a point where the ensuing damage would eventually hurt the interests of the worst off. Egalitarians should care about lotteries with thresholds of competence defined by reference to the interests of the worst off.

One reason why FEO enjoys wide endorsement is because it protects the expressive value of not discriminating against people in arbitrary ways, which is important even in unjustly unequal societies. But this value can be realised by allocating positions of advantage according to principles much less difficult to implement than FEO: indeed lotteries with thresholds of competence will do on this count.

Let me finish with two caveats. First, we always have reason to ensure that everybody enjoys the same cultivation of talents: the reasons for equal education are not exhausted by the competitive value education – by how it is instrumental in accessing advantageous jobs. Children are owed equal education (also) on grounds of its non-instrumental value.

Second, in a limited number of cases we do have reasons of justice to want FEO – rather than weighted lotteries – to regulate competitions even in unjustly unequal societies: when placing the most talented in a position will benefit the worst off (say, when employing managers for efficient charities); and when placing the most talented in a position spares innocent lives and avoids the frustration of some basic needs (say, pilots or brain surgeons). If so, the overall argument amounts to a very qualified defence of FEO in unjust circumstances.

Anca Gheaus

Universitat Pompeu Fabra