Equality of Opportunity is partly motivated by the plausibility of treating individuals equally and partly motivated by the unattractiveness of giving each person the same, or Equality of Outcome. Equality of Outcome requires that individuals have some share of goods, not merely a chance to obtain them without the hindrance of some obstacles. A focus on outcomes with respect to literacy among young children may seem appropriate, since it is important that children actually become literate rather than have an opportunity to read, which could be missed. But a focus on outcomes may seem less plausible in other cases, such as equalizing the results of standardized tests. It is a further worry about Equality of Outcome that it might stifle individuality leading to uniformity of character, of preferences or of ability.
Equality of Opportunity distinguishes itself from Equality of Outcome in two main cases. In cases involving goods that cannot be distributed equally, Equality of Opportunity specifies a fair way of distributing unequal outcomes. For example, there may be ten children for every place at a charter school. Unless we are happy to waste school places, Equality of Outcome can’t help us decide here, so we need another principle. Equality of Opportunity may help us to decide to run a lottery where each child has an equal chance of getting a place. In cases involving individual choices, such as voluntary gambling, Equality of Outcome condemns inequality resulting from win or loss as wrong or unfair. Equality of Opportunity, however, is often understood as allowing for these inequalities and many consider this to be a decisive advantage of focusing on opportunity. If a person chooses to act in ways that diminish her prospects for admission at a good college, it may seem wrong to compensate her at the expense of other candidates. “Why should other conscientious students be worse off to ensure that she is admitted?” critics will claim.
However, in some cases, it may be impossible for individuals to collectively realize the outcomes that they have equal opportunity to secure. In these cases, Equality of Opportunity may seem unfair. This is the case with scarce goods, such as jobs or college places at elite institutions. For example, imagine that only 1,000 doctors can be appointed in one year. If there are 10,000 applicants then each has, insofar as the relevant obstacles are removed, an equal opportunity, but not all can in fact realize that opportunity with effort and hard-work, even if they would also be considered qualified enough to do the job well. These opportunities are competitive and in those cases we might prefer equal outcomes to having some people realize the opportunity at the expense of others. To address this concern, we might understand Equality of Opportunity as requiring that, with certain effort, and overcoming only relevant obstacles, any person, and any number of persons, can, independent of the actions of others, realize the good that they have an opportunity to secure.