As a social value, equal opportunities is a complex concept. The term equality is, in fact, polysemous, and therefore subject to interpretation. Objectivity in the definition given in this article will therefore be relative. Note also the ambiguity of the term opportunities.
Equal opportunities is a requirement that the social status of individuals of a generation no longer depends on the moral, ethnic, religious, financial and social characteristics of previous generations, but only on the service they can provide to society, even to civilization.
This vision of equal opportunities constitutes one of the foundations of John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness: assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those which are at the same level of talent and capacity and who have the same desire to use them should have the same prospects for success, regardless of their initial position in the social system. The American philosopher makes it one of the two parts of his “second principle”, which comes after the principle of equal freedom.
According to Rawls, “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.”
He takes this approach by inventing an initial situation, in which individuals would be asked about the form they would like from a society without them knowing what place they would have there. Rawls believes that most people would then want freedom but also this form of equal opportunity.
This equality of opportunities is similar to the concept of equity. If individuals are not more advantaged or disadvantaged compared to each other, then only individual results come into account (partly linked to personal efforts, partly to a greater or lesser adequacy between the work requested and the cognitive dispositions. of each) in the distinction between individuals. We can then consider equal opportunities as promoting the development of fair inequalities, that is to say those being legitimized by the personal efforts of the individual and the extent of the work that will be required of him. Rawls also subordinates the second principle of justice to the first priority rules which seals the “priority of liberty” according to which “liberty can be restricted only for the sake of liberty”.
(In a factory setting, equality of opportunity is often seen as a procedural fairness along the lines of “if you assemble twice as many lamps, you’ll be paid double” and in this sense the concept is in contrast to the concept of equality of outcome, which might require that all workers be paid similarly regardless of how many lamps they made)
In Law, Legislation and Liberty (1978), the Austrian philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek takes a critical look at the question of equal opportunities. He considers that equality before the law must prevail and that equality of opportunity in government-run services (such as education for minors) constitutes one of the essential points of classical liberalism, usually characterized by the expression “the career open to talents”. Nonetheless, he believes that as soon as the idea is extended beyond the services which, for other reasons, the government must provide, it becomes a totally illusory ideal, and any attempt to make it pass into reality risks to create a nightmare. Because according to him, step by step, it would be necessary to arrive at that the political power literally has all the elements likely to affect the well-being of each one.
The American economist Milton Friedman defends a similar position: the expression should not be understood in the general sense, according to him. It is similar to the expression used during the French Revolution, “a career open to all talents”. It corresponds in this sense to equality before the law, the foundation of liberal democracy, and is an essential component of freedom. Friedman opposes him to the notion of equality of results, a radically different and dangerous deviation for him.
For Patrick Savidan, philosopher and President of the Observatory of Inequalities, equal opportunities presupposes that significant resources (health, housing, education, training, etc.) be socially mobilized so that each new generation and each individual within of this generation has an equal chance. In Rethinking Equality of Opportunity (2007), Patrick Savidan underlines that a very individualistic conception of equal opportunities does not achieve this objective, but on the contrary tends to reinforce inequalities. For equality of opportunity to become “sustainable”, it would be necessary, according to him, to produce social relationships which do not make equal opportunities impossible. For this, he suggests placing it in a more solidarist perspective.