论机会平等 – Equal opportunity – English

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‘Southern Wind’, 2012 Week 13

When we talk about social justice, most people’s consider that equal opportunity is the key. And when we talk about equal opportunity, what comes up in people’s mind is generally the image of the starting line on a running field. As long as everyone stands on the same starting line, the competition is fair; then, whatever the results of the run may be, they are also fair. The problem is: in the end, what conditions need to be met so we can say that we stand on the same starting line? Furthermore, when we use the athletic metaphor of the starting line to think about justice, what representation of morality do we have as a background?


To start with, let’s put some order in the concepts. First, when we talk about equal opportunity, we always talk about valuable things that are scarce and that everyone wants in a competitive fashion,  such as jobs, college admission, prizes and honours in competitions, positions of authority, wealth, etc. And equal opportunity is actually about building a fair competition system.

Second, since it is a competition, there is necessarily a competitive process, at the end of which, necessarily, there are winners and losers – so that in the final result, there are necessarily differences. Thus, equal opportunities and equal results are like two sides of a process. Equal opportunity ensures a fair starting point for efforts, but it then allows free play to competitors, and the results of these interplays are not equal, they are what everyone deserves, and are therefore morally acceptable. The greatest attraction of equal opportunity seems to be this: it is not opposed to competition, it allows for differences, but it is also fair.

Third, a so-called “fair” starting point does not mean that all differences between competitors need to be erased, but excluding those factors resulting in an unfair competition, then leaving the reasonable factors. In the College Examination, for instance, I think many people would agree,  a fair examination system should be based only on the students’ academic achievements, but the place of residence or family background should not influence a student’s chances to enroll at University.

Finally, equal opportunity is a very modern concept. In a society where every person’s social role is firmly connected to their descendance, origin, class, religion, ethnicity, etc,  the importance of equal opportunity will be very limited. Only in a society that fully guarantees equal rights for its citizens will equal opportunity be regarded as a fundamental principle to regulate social competition.

Some people may instantly ask, why should equal opportunity be a fundamental principle? What is its importance? I believe, equal opportunity reflects the following moral conviction: we are equal members of the political community, when we take part in different competitions, we must receive fair and equitable treatment, and nobody should suffer unjustified discrimination or exclusion. This means we do not accept that society is a ruled by the law of the jungle, and jobs and opportunities are arbitrarily attributed by those in power, without obeying any moral constraint based on justice, constraints coming from the government having equal respect for each individual. When discussing equal opportunity, many people tend to think of it from the point of view of its consequences on society as a whole, for instance, whether it can promote social mobility, increase efficiency, or support social stability, etc. But there is a danger to this line of thought, namely that the government could use the same logic to deny equal opportunities to the citizens, for instance in university enrolments or job applications, to give privileges to people from a certain city or class in the name of collective interest, and ignore the harmful effects of this policy on people affected by unfair treatment.

Since equal opportunity relates to whether each individual is treated fairly, and so we shouldn’t think of the individual as instrumental to the whole, but seriously consider the rights and dignity that every individual is entitled to. Only this way can we clearly see why from birth, the children of rich and poor, officials and civilians, rural and urban residents, are all affected by their family backgrounds in multiple aspects of their fate, we would know there is injustice, we would fill with anger and humiliation, and even despair for this society.We would then also become fully aware that the injustice in these systems is artificial, and can be changed. So, basically, what should be changed?


The first step of change is to establish a good system and good procedures ensuring that every citizen in the competition receives an equal treatment. For instance in recruitment, there must be an open and transparent process, and nobody can go through the back door or pull relationships to obtain advantages and privileges. I know very well that, in China today, what I’m saying is just wishful thinking. But everyone is thinking, as long as this situation doesn’t change, our country will remain an unjust State, the citizens will never build trust in the system, people who achieved results through numerous efforts and have actual talent, but don’t have relationships, will find it difficult to demonstrate their skills, and thus build resentment. Even more scary than this is the situation that arises when you need bribery or other improper means to access power and resources in different fields: then, the moral resources of the whole society will gradually run out, our moral sensitivity will slowly decline, so much so that we will treat this change as a matter of course, and the moral core of our souls will gradually shrivel and dry out. And When this happens, we will all suffer from it.

The second step of change is to guarantee that the rules of the competition are preserved, and that no criteria are used that are unconnected to the nature of the task, and would exclude certain people: for exemple, you cannot discriminate because of a person’s gender, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation. So what are the relevant standards? This depends on the nature of the work. For instance, when the government recruits public servants, if certain academic requirements are required due to the demands of the job, we do not see this as discrimination. Similarly, if some types of jobs require certain types of skills, for instance firefighters must meet certain standards of strength and height to effectively do their job, and therefore women are not suitable to be firefighters, we also believe that this is acceptable.

Some people may immediately ask, how can we determine what is “relevant”? This indeed cannot be generalized, but every particular case must be dealt with specifically, and there is often controversy. For instance, some schools are religious schools, and require that the appointed teachers must have the same faith. But is this not a violation of the principle of equal opportunity? People who favour this approach consider that, as long as you don’t teach subjects related to religion, then there should be no such restrictions. But people opposing this approach think that religious schools need a religious atmosphere, and if the teachers do not share this faith, then it will impact on their words and deeds. We should allow and even encourage public discussion on this topic, because only through this kind of discussion can we gain an understanding of different moral perspectives, and only then will respect and tolerance be possible, while also gathering the full wealth of moral resources from the whole community. At the same time, the government needs to set up a form of Equal Opportunities Commission (like the one that exists in Hong Kong), so that on the one hand, they can play a role of mediation and arbitration when controversy and complains arise, and on the other hand, they can organise various activities in schools and in the community to promote the concept of equal opportunity.


After taking the two steps described above, have we met all the requirements of equal opportunity? Not really. Let’s return to the metaphor of the starting line. The most important meaning of this metaphor is: take away all unjustified and irrelevant obstacles, and thus open positions for all who are capable. Therefore, in the international arena, whether you’re black or white, no matter what your ethnic background or religion, as long as we start on the same starting line, whoever runs the fastest can win the championship.

The question now is: what gives ‘the capable’ actually ‘opportunities”? There’s at least three reasons. First, they worked very hard, training diligently every day; second, they’re intrinsically distinguished, and have good natural aptitudes; third, they’re received very good professional training, and from this, the opportunity to fully develop their talent. I think that, lacking any of these three elements, it will be very difficult to have the opportunity to succeed. Someone who only has one leg, no matter how hard they train or how much training they receive, I’m afraid that they will find it really hard to run faster than someone with two legs. And if we put these two people on the same starting line, I’m afraid it’s not easy to say that they have the same opportunity. Through the same reasoning, take two people with the same innate talent and the same willingness to work hard, if one has sufficient material conditions at home in his childhood, whereby they can receive good nutrition, develop good psychological and physiological qualities, and receive good athletic training, the other can’t eat enough or keep warm, let along receive any training. If you put these two people together, the former probably has a far greater chance to win than the latter.

This shows clearly that the concept of equal opportunity cannot be restricted to the starting line, as previously discussed, but requires ongoing interrogation, and this leads in the end to everybody having different competitive factors, some reasonable, and some unreasonable which therefore need correcting and compensating. I believe that a majority of people will agree the condition of “personal effort” is appropriate and will not influence the fairness of the competition. So let’s focus on the other two.

The impact of a person’s family background on their career is undeniable. The most obvious element is education. Empirical research shows that a child from a middle class family background has large advantages over children from a lower middle class or lower class family through nutrition, education, personal development, social networks and interpersonal relations; therefore, their chances of staying in the middle class or climbing up further are also much bigger than the latter. In other words, these two groups of children, from their birth onwards, cannot possibly be said to be on the same starting line. And these differences are not related to their efforts, but pure luck: that they were born in the right family.

If we really want to emphasize equal opportunity, then our system must minimize these differences as much as possible. For instance, the government has a responsibility to provide equally good compulsory education to all children, and even limit the emergence of elite schools, lest wealthy people use their money to purchase better education. The government should also provide a broad range of social welfare, so that the children of poor people. even those in the lowest conditions, have the necessary conditions to develop their natural talent, build their confidence and their self-esteem. Or yet another example is that the government should impose a very high inheritance tax, so that the advantages acquired in one generation will not be continued in the next. To do this, the government should actively intervene in the market, instead of allowing the invisible hand determine people’s fate. But we also have to consider that, for this to happen, there will be considerable difficulties, not technical, but ethical. For instance, if you adopt the parents’ point of view, they always want the best education for their children, so that they will be able to compete best in the future, and for this reason, they’re bound to use all the means available to cultivate their own children. And so as long as the competitive landscape is unchanged, it will be almost impossible for the government to completely eliminate or level out the family’s influence on children’s achievements. At the same time, this is also not desirable, because this might harm some of the values attached to family (such as caring and love), while bringing the danger of excessive intervention, and reduction in personal freedom. For that reason, in the actual design of the system, balancing the tension between these two poles will be a challenging problem.

Finally, the most difficult is the question of natural talent. Everyone has different natural gifts, and these capacities are unrelated to later efforts, therefore they strongly feel like luck. It is also very hard to deny that these natural talents largely affect the chances of success in competition. And so, should we do something to minimise the differences of natural talent, in order to ensure equal opportunity? Or are we asking the wrong question: the requirements of equal opportunity should not go that far, the government absolutely should not deal with these differences, but let them develop naturally, because not only would intervention not necessarily bring about positive results, but it could even cause serious harm to autonomy and self-confidence? This is one of the most contentious questions in contemporary political philosophy.


The discussion above allows us to see, the moral ideal of “equal opportunity” is quite complex and controversial, whether in theory or in practice. The contents, range of application and institutional requirements of equal opportunity all deserve to be seriously discussed, because they relate to justice and deeply affect each one of us. To finish, I would also like to stress that, to bring about increased equal opportunity in our society, we can’t just rely on changes in the system, we also need to rely on changes in people’s minds. Equal opportunity requires us to have a very unique moral point of view to look at ourselves and our social life: although we have many innate and acquired differences, although we compete with each other in society, we are still equal citizens, we hope that the competition modalities and procedures are fair and reasonable, and such that they will convince everyone. And behind this, there is a deep insistence on fairness and justice, as well as care and respect for people.

Source: 1510, June 15 2012 – http://www.my1510.cn/article.php?id=79611

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French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org