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The Concept of Equality of Opportunity

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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.

  1. All Americans should have a chance to attain a college degree without the hindrance of racial discrimination.

  2. All whites should have a chance to attain a college degree without the hindrance of gender discrimination.

  3. 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.


Campbell, TD. “Equality Of Opportunity”. Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society. Proceedings Of The Aristotelian Society. JSTOR, 1974.

Notes: This paper focuses on ‘opportunity’ within the concept of equality of opportunity as a type of freedom and discusses possible justifications of various commonly held conceptions of equality of opportunity.

Carter, Ian. “Respect And The Basis Of Equality”. Ethics, Ethics, 121, no. 3 (2011): 538-571.

Notes: This paper explores answers to the question of why people are equals and in respect of what features they are so. Carter pays particular attention to the notion of respect and draws out implications of the basis of equality for the appropriate currency of justice, which is to be equalized among persons.

Charvet, John. “The Idea Of Equality As A Substantive Principle Of Society”. Political Studies, Political Studies, 17, no. 1 (1969): 1-13.

Notes: This paper argues that equality of opportunity for social positions implies that we accept meritocracy, but we need not attach unequal rewards to positions. The paper also argues that equality of opportunity is not an ideal to be realized but one to aim for.

Frankel, Charles. “Equality Of Opportunity”. Ethics, Ethics, 1971, 191-211.

Notes: This paper surveys a number of common ways of understanding the ideal of equality of opportunity, and raises some problems with it. It concludes that equality of opportunity is not an ideal to be achieved but a policy goal as its pursuit brings about valuable effects

Jencks, Christopher. “Whom Must We Treat Equally For Educational Opportunity To Be Equal?”. Ethics, Ethics, 1988, 518-533.

Notes: This paper examines the meaning of equality of opportunity from the perspective of a teacher dividing her time and attention among students, considering whether any of the various conceptions of equality of opportunity provides us with satisfactory guidance and whether they contradict one another.

Joseph, Lawrence B. “Some Ways Of Thinking About Equality Of Opportunity”. Political Research Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, 33, no. 3 (1980): 393-400.

Notes: This paper argues that equality of opportunity is not in tension with equality of outcome and that equality of opportunity requires that capacities and effort should determine outcome.

Parfit, Derek. “Equality And Priority”. Ratio, Ratio, 10, no. 3 (1997): 202-221.

Notes: In this paper Parfit clearly distinguishes a concern for improving the position of the worse off and a concern for equality. Parfit shows that the two can be distinguished in important cases and sets out the influential levelling down objection to equality.

Richards, Janet Radcliffe. “Equality Of Opportunity”. Ratio, Ratio, 10, no. 3 (1997): 253-279.

Notes: This paper presents equality of opportunity as a term given to many distinct ideas and uses examples from the educational context to show that many of the policies we associate with equality of opportunity have no common element.

Westen, Peter. “The Concept Of Equal Opportunity”. Ethics, Ethics, 1985, 837-850.

Notes: This paper provides us with a formula for thinking about equality of opportunity as a relation between agents, obstacles and goals.

Williams, Bernard. “The Idea Of Equality”. In Philosophy, Politics, And Society, 110-131. Philosophy, Politics, And Society. London: Basil Blackwell, 1962.

Notes: This paper identifies a problem with the conception of meritocratic equality of opportunity, which requires that the most qualified individuals obtain social positions at the expense of fairly distributed access to qualification.