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Fair Equality of Opportunity

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Fair Equality of Opportunity (FEO) requires that social positions, such as jobs, be formally open and meritocratically allocated, but, in addition, each individual is to have a fair chance to attain these positions. John Rawls developed the most well-known conception of FEO. For Rawls, an individual has a fair chance when her prospects for success in the pursuit of social positions are a function of her level of native talent and willingness to use them, and are not a function of her social class or background. To put the principle in terms of Westen’s formula, it holds that all citizens of some society count as the relevant agents, the desired goal is offices and positions, and the obstacles people shouldn’t face include social class and family background. The obstacles people may face include having fewer native abilities or less willingness to cultivate them than others. This principle may support educational measures that close the attainment gap between the naturally talented rich and the naturally talented poor.

Debates about FEO have focused on the relative importance of the goods it regulates (opportunities for offices and positions) and its failure to treat all luck equally. On the first debate, some have argued that the opportunities that FEO regulates are not more important than other goods, such as income or welfare, and that we should prefer a principle (known in Rawls' work as the difference principle) that ensures that the least advantaged are as well-off as possible in terms of income and wealth rather than a principle that ensures fair competition for positions.  On the second debate, some argue that inequalities in social luck, being born into a poor family, which FEO does attempt to correct for, and inequalities in natural luck, being born with fewer natural talents, which FEO does not attempt to correct for, should be treated the same. It is easy to think that both types of luck are equally arbitrary from the moral point of view and that this arbitrariness is a source of injustice. Why would being born poor not require the same response as being born disabled? As we shall see Equality of Opportunity for Welfare treats both types of luck as equally suspect sources of injustice.


Alexander, Larry A. “Fair Equality Of Opportunity: John Rawls' (Best) Forgotten Principle”. Philosophy Research Archives, Philosophy research archives, 11 (1985): 197-208.

Notes: This paper argues that there are serious problems with the role of the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity in Rawls as he sees that conception as guaranteeing that the least advantaged are as well off as possible but if that is so it should not have priority over the difference principle. The paper also raises concerns with the quality and quantity of opportunities that fair equality of opportunity distributes.

Arneson, Richard J. “Against Rawlsian Equality Of Opportunity”. Philosophical Studies, Philosophical Studies, 93, no. 1 (1999): 77-112.

Notes: The paper argues against the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity on the grounds that we should care about opportunities for welfare rather than opportunities to compete on fair terms with one another for social positions and that Rawls’ own argument for that conception does not support that principle. Arneson also notes that Rawls says nothing about the socialization of ambition, which can lead the operation of that conception to overlook some injustices.

Clayton, Matthew. “Rawls And Natural Aristocracy”. Croatian Journal Of Philosophy, Croatian journal of philosophy, no. 3 (2001): 239-259.

Notes: This paper argues that the conception of Fair Equality of opportunity’s differential treatment of social and natural luck is in conflict with Rawls’ argument for it.

Miklosi, Zoltan. “How Does The Difference Principle Make A Difference?”. Res Publica, Res Publica, 16, no. 3 (2010): 263-280.

Notes: This paper argues that given the priority of the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity within Rawls’ theory, the difference principle will have very little role to play in a theory of justice.

Rawls, John. A Theory Of Justice, Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Notes: This book introduces the notion of fair equality of opportunity as supplementing and developing meritocratic equality of opportunity with a fair chances condition, which requires that everyone has a fair chance to be the best qualified candidate based on native talent and willingness to use them.

Sachs, Benjamin. “The Limits Of Fair Equality Of Opportunity”. Philosophical Studies, Philosophical studies, 160, no. 2 (2012): 323-343.

Notes: The paper considers some ways of filling out the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity defended in Rawls, in particular the currency and the timing. The paper argues that such a principle will have very limited ability to ground certain social policies.

Shiffrin, Seana Valentine. “Race, Labor, And The Fair Equality Of Opportunity Principle”. Fordham L. Rev, Fordham L. Rev., 72 (2003): 1643.

Notes: This paper discusses the absence of discussion of race in Rawls’ work and responses to it. The paper discusses the ways that considerations about labour and race might be better accommodated and the possibility of including an anti-discrimination principle alongside the conception of fair equality of opportunity.

Taylor, Robert S. “Self-Realization And The Priority Of Fair Equality Of Opportunity”. Journal Of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 1, no. 3 (2004): 333-347.

Notes: This paper argues that the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity should have high priority in our thinking about justice because it is associated with higher order interests in shaping our interest in forming and revising plans of life.