Outcome versus Opportunity

      1 Comment on Outcome versus Opportunity

I’ve received some questions following the No true Scotsman post that I wrote two weeks ago, regarding my offhand comment about equality of outcomes or equality of opportunity.

This means that two radically opposed people, for example one of them is for equality of outcomes and the other wants equality of opportunity, which are conflicting interests, can both be feminists, even if they probably both will say that the other one is not a real feminist.

Specifically, I have been asked which type of equality I actually believed in, considering that they are not compatible, yet I’ve described them both as valid. For the record, I believe in gender equality, even if the person asking seemed to take that for granted even though I’m pretty sure lots of people don’t.

For those who don’t know what the difference is, or that might have a vague idea about it but nothing more, Equality of outcomes basically means that we, as a society, will actively work to make sure that everyone gets a similar treatment, has a life as good as any other person, etc. On the contrary, equality of opportunity is a more ruthless point of view, where you would give everyone the same starting conditions, but there is a sink or swim component at work. You might, for example, do your best to make sure everyone is allowed to work, vote, own land, etc. but not care at all if some people failed the interview, didn’t get a job, and are now homeless. A good example is race quotas, discussed to some extent in this post from september. Equality of opportunities would require giving black people the right to go on interviews and have any job, but wouldn’t care if they are hired less, even if that was because of racism. Equality of outcomes would force, or strongly encourage, quotas, in order to make sure any minority is hired at a rate proportional to their actual numbers in society.

To be honest, I think both are impossible. We will never have actual equality of outcomes, because there are way too many factors at work that we won’t even be able to control. For example, no matter how much you want to be unbiased, pretty much anyone would agree that some jobs are objectively less pleasant than others, even if the actual difference level depends on the individual’s tastes. Since we, at least until robots can replace us efficiently, will need people in all jobs to make sure society works, at some point some people will get the short hand of the stick.

On the other side, we will also never have actual equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity grants people the possibility of getting rich. As those rich people are biased, they probably will choose to give that money to their family or friends in the event of their deaths, instead of sharing it equally between everyone. Then, the lucky ones will inherit wealth and have a huge headstart in life. In some extreme cases, they might live an extremely expensive life without having to work a day. There is no way to actually outlaw inheritances, because then we would have to make all gifts illegal or we’d just have dying people gifting their money at the last moment. Furthermore, if your parents are rich, you might get in a better school, have access to extra ressources if you fall behind, etc. Equality of opportunities might have a slight chance of existing if we redistributed all wealth equally today across the entire world, and even then it would crumble very quickly as failure and success would be shared between close people.

But even knowing that they are both impossible in practice, we can still choose which one we prefer, and work towards that one. We won’t ever reach perfection, but getting closer is always good.

As some of you might have guessed with my Minimum wage and Race quotas posts, I have a tendency toward equality of opportunity. I believe that, although it definitely is sad that some people can fail and become homeless or even die because they were not in the right place at the right time, it is a small minority, and a sacrifice we have to make in order to keep the incentive to be successful that people see in the possibility of becoming rich and famous. I think society as a whole will get way better results if every individual person has a chance of failing, because that is the kind of thing that can motivate someone to work harder in my opinion. At the very least, that’s how my brain works. The fact that if I don’t work hard I might have a shitty life, and the fact that if I do my best I have a shot at becoming rich, are both incredible motivation sources to me. I know for a fact that I would be less productive if there was no hope of getting a better life than the next guy, or if there was no risk of getting a worse one. I simply think that a big enough portion of the population are the same as me on that point.

I don’t think that anyone deserves to be poor, but I think that some people being poor is necessary to prevent everyone becoming less useful, and slowly but surely making everyone’s lives worse, and maybe making all of them poor. I also think that this is precisely why most communism attempts have eventually made the entire country poorer. That and the fact that to enforce a true equality of outcomes, you usually have to trample a couple basic human rights.

That’s my opinion on the subject. I look forward to disagreements!

  • Kingfisher12

    I tend to start thinking about problems like this by asking ‘what does that even mean?’, which is something this starts with, but I have to ask what would equality of opportunity or outcome look like.

    I think one of the problems facing those promoting equality, in any form, is that people tend to get hung up on the small differences, while ignoring the larger disparities. Maybe the small differences seem more important, or maybe they seem easier to fix, but I don’t think either is true.

    Christian doctrine tends to stress unity as more important than equality in opportunity or outcome. The hand doesn’t say to the foot ‘I have no need of thee’, they are not equal, but neither are they separable. In the same way, the foot should not think it is unimportant because it is not a hand. Christian doctrine also explicitly states; ‘he who would be greatest among you, let him be your servant’.

    I think this unity does require one kind of equality though – equality of dignity. Not all are equal in terms of ability, or equal in terms of need. So it makes no sense to think that people should be equal in reward or responsibility. But if we treated each other as equals in dignity, it would go a long way in creating the unity that would elevate everyone. Equality in dignity would (over time) render questions of equality of outcome or equality of opportunity moot, because it would (eventually) eliminate poverty, and would help everyone meet their fullest individual potential, whatever that might be.