Should society operate through equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?


Fact Box

  • A PBS Newshour/Marist poll from 2015 revealed that 52% of white respondents said that opportunity for employment was equal between blacks and whites, while 76% of African Americans disagreed [1]. 
  • Income mobility is possible and well documented. Individuals/households that started in the lower socio-economic bracket in 1996 had risen to the middle class by 2005 [2]. 
  • 6.6% of the CEOs on the 2019 Fortune 500 list of the highest-grossing firms in the US were female [3].
  • In 1961, President Kennedy issued an executive order instructing federal contractors to utilize 'affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and also created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity the same year [4]. 


Although equal opportunity has its philosophical merits, our current reality dictates that opportunities that appear equal are continually warped into being unequal. This goes back to the fact that our society was built on a variety of unjust bigotries—sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and more—and, despite our admitted progress, we have yet to do all the work to eliminate these biases from our culture overall. Because of how deeply ingrained these attitudes are, people tend to fall back on them. Hiring processes, for example, can no longer flatly deny employment based on race or gender, but unspoken bias makes it so when applicants with the same level of qualification but where one is an identity that historically has power (white, male, able-bodied, straight, etc.) and the other is not, they are not given the same consideration. One study showed that when identical applications with only the names changed were sent into jobs, white-sounding names got a much higher callback rate than black-sounding names [1]. The opportunity appeared equal, but the flaws of the people judging applications warped the opportunity to be unequal.

Attitudes don’t change on their own. Creating paths for historically marginalized people to be in positions that biases have kept them out of forces people to confront what they are uncomfortable with and normalize the image of those people in such positions. People growing up with those images will begin to think of this as normal, and cultural biases will die over time. Equality of outcome doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all of policy, but it is a necessary tool to combat harmful cultural biases while we work toward a society that can provide truly equal opportunity.


What’s fair? Equality of opportunity suggests the answer in a system that aims to treat all people equally regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic standing while viewing them as free agents of their life. The goal is to allow everyone to participate under the same rules and be judged by the same standard. Equal opportunists don’t ignore inequalities – they’re apart of life, innumerable and individually nuanced (perhaps why blanket “outcomes” don’t satisfy everyone). But so are the causes. Sociologists know this: correlation doesn’t imply causation. Discrepancy doesn’t automatically equal bias, discrimination, or injustice. 

“Righting the wrongs” of discrepancy is a noble, yet unattainable, contention which ignores the spectrum of diverse individuals and instead produces mediocrity. It imposes biased injustice against one group, reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator. This ideology stokes resentment, entitlement, envy, bitterness, and further division amongst people. The severe government regulation required to accomplish equal outcomes paired alongside societal discontent runs contrary to America’s founding ideal that “all men were created equal,” which points to the unifying equality of worth, dignity, and intrinsic value of people. Equality of opportunity fits seamlessly alongside this notion, as it’s an essential component of liberty that one is not encumbered with extraneous/imposed limitations or discrimination. But when the government is given full authority to ensure outcomes, this requires complete seizure over individual liberty to impose “equality” above human choice. 

The fairest society is one where individuals are free to rise to the level of their ability. Humans are transient beings, never fated to stay at the level they started. That’s the beauty of America and of the protected liberty to pursue opportunities equally despite all odds. [Sources: 1,2,3,4,5(p.vii-95),6(p.148)]

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