Before we accept Equality of Opportunity as a social ideal we must first ask the most basic question: What is the concept of Equality of Opportunity? When we respond to this question, our response in part must account for what makes something a statement of Equality of Opportunity rather than a statement of some other principle we may care about, such as Equality of Outcome.
The most influential philosophical analysis of the opportunity and equality components of the phrase provides us with a simple formula. According to this formula, agent(s) have an opportunity when they have a chance to attain a specified goal(s) without the hindrance of some obstacle(s). Equality of Opportunity obtains when agents have a chance to attain the same goal(s) without the hindrance of the same obstacle(s). Here are some examples of statements of equality of opportunity to illustrate the flexibility of the concept.
All Americans should have a chance to attain a college degree without the hindrance of racial discrimination.
All whites should have a chance to attain a college degree without the hindrance of gender discrimination.
All Americans should have a chance to attain literacy without the hindrance of any obstacle other than severe disability precluding the attainment of literacy.
The examples above provide us with statements of Equality of Opportunity, but they differ in their attractiveness as social ideals. This is because they differ in terms of the agents, obstacles and goals they specify. Though the goals are the same in the first two statements they differ in the obstacles that may remain and in the groups that are singled out. So, for instance, in the first statement, poor women may be discriminated against and so have a more difficult time attaining a college degree than wealthy men. In the second statement, non-whites are not guaranteed an equal opportunity, but even among whites socio-economic or religious discrimination are not condemned. These may be extremely powerful obstacles in a society punctuated by religious pluralism and socio-economic inequality. This may be considered a pretty lousy opportunity, but it is an opportunity nonetheless. The third example illustrates how very many obstacles to some goal could be removed, but the value of the opportunity may be diminished merely by the modesty of the goal.
The examples collectively show that we care about each separate aspect of equality of opportunity, the agents, the obstacles and the goals, and how they are specified will affect how attractive that statement is as a social ideal. The examples also show that the concept itself is quite empty. Indeed, if all we know about a politician is that she is in favor of Equality of Opportunity we are in no position to know what sorts of policies she will favor. This has led critics to claim that Equality of Opportunity has been stretched so much that is no longer has determinate or useful meaning. If we are to understand what the most desirable form of Equality of Opportunity is, we will have to examine different ‘conceptions’ of the idea, which specify the agents, obstacles and goals in different ways.