opportunity would require, among other things, substantial spending on educa-
tion. Indeed, given the huge influence that the family has on a child’s prospects,
to achieve equal opportunity may entail considerable intervention in family life.
- Equality of outcomeCritics of equality frequently argue that egalitarians – that
is, those who regard equality as a central political principle – want to create a
society in which everybody is treated equally irrespective of personal differences,
or individual choice. This is a caricature, for it is possible to argue for equality
of outcome as a prima facie principle, meaning that we should seek as far as
possible to ensure an equal outcome consistent with other political principles.
Equality of outcome may also function as a proxy for equality of opportunity:
if there are significantly unequal outcomes, then this indicates that there is not
an adequate equality of opportunity. This last point leads us into a consideration
of affirmative action.
- Affirmative actionThis term originated in the United States and is an umbrella
term covering a range of policies intended to address the material deprivations
suffered by (especially) black Americans, but also gender inequalities. Although
it embraces a wider range of policies, it is often used as a synonym for ‘reverse
discrimination’, or ‘positive discrimination’. Examples of reverse discrimination
include the operation of quotas for jobs, or a reduction in entry requirements
for college places. Reverse discrimination is best understood as operating
somewhere between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome: the
principle acts directly on outcomes, but is intended to guarantee equality of
Moral autonomy and moral equality
That people are morally equal is a central belief – often implicit rather than explicit
- of societies influenced by the Enlightenment (post-Enlightenment societies).
Sometimes people talk of ‘natural equality’, but this has connotations of natural
law – the belief that moral principles have a real existence, transcending time and
place. Moral equality can, minimally, be understood as a negative: people should
be treated equally because there is no reason to believe in natural inequality.
In Chapter 2 it was suggested that in post-Enlightenment societies there was a
presumption in favour of liberty, meaning that people should be free to act as they
wish unless there was a good reason for limiting that freedom. Parallel to the
presumption in favour of liberty, there is also a presumption in favour of equality
- people should be treated equally unless there is a strong reason for treating them
unequally. But the negative argument does not adequately capture the importance
of moral equality: to be morally equal, that is, worthy of equal consideration, implies
that you are a certain kind of being – a being to whom reasons, or justifications,
can be given. This reflects the roots of the concept of moral equality in the
Enlightenment, which challenges authority, and assumes that the human mind is
capable of understanding the world. Among the political implications of this
58 Part 1 Classical ideas