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Formal Equality of Opportunity

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Formal Equality of Opportunity is the view that formal rules should not exclude individuals from acheiving certain goals by making reference to personal characteristics that are arbitrary, such as race, socio-economic class, gender, religion and sexuality. In addition, Formal Equality of Opportunity forbids reference to proper names in formal rules. Formal Equality of Opportunity is incompatible with segregating workplaces or schools along these dimensions, and rules that pick out John Smith as a subject of unique advantages or disadvantages.

The best example of Formal Equality of Opportunity concerns equality before the law. However, Formal Equality of Opportunity is only formal. It is not concerned with the content of informal rules or of private discrimination. To illustrate this, consider the case of a racist employer who hires only whites but never advertises that fact. The adverts for these positions are formally open to all individuals, but the employer will never give the job to a non-white person. We can imagine other employers who are homophobic, anti-Semitic or sexist. There is something wrong with this kind of discrimination, but it is not a fault of formal rules, so Formal Equality of Opportunity can only take us so far.

Formal Equality of Opportunity suffers from some problems in its definition. We can ask, what makes a rule properly general? On one understanding, Formal Equality of Opportunity would require all positions to be open to all human beings. However, this is implausible. We do not think that young children should be allowed to apply for the position of bar tender and we certainly forbid them from voting. The severely mentally disabled may likewise be prohibited from applying for certain positions and voting. Finally, there doesn't seem to be anything especially wrong with limiting applications to only those with certain qualifications, such as a driving license for a taxi driver. However, the more permissive formal rules become, the easier it becomes to indirectly discriminate. For instance, a hair salon may insist that stylists' hair be shown and not covered. This would rule out members of some groups who cover their hair on religious or cultural grounds.


Alexander, Larry. “What Makes Wrongful Discrimination Wrong? Biases, Preferences, Stereotypes, And Proxies”. University Of Pennsylvania Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 1992, 149-219.

Notes: This paper discusses the ways of distinguishing wrongful and non-wrongful discrimination within the conception of formal equality of opportunity.

Becker, Gary S. The Economics Of Discrimination. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Notes: This book examines the economic impact of acts of discrimination, on grounds of religion, sex, race and others, and argues that discrimination lowers the real incomes of those who discriminate and those discriminated against.

Cavanagh, Matt. Against Equality Of Opportunity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Notes: The book attacks vagueness and over-simplicity in the formulation and defense of some ideas of and conceptions of equality of opportunity. In particular, Cavanagh argues that meritocratic and formal ideals of equality of opportunity have more to do with efficiency than justice and overlook the discretion business owners may be due in hiring workers. However, Cavanagh does defend a version of non-discrimination that resembles formal equality of opportunity.

Nozick, Robert. “Life Is Not A Race”. In Equality: Selected Readings. Equality: Selected Readings. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Notes: The paper argues that many conceptions of equality of opportunity cannot be a requirements of justice since it would require addressing present unequal initial abilities, unequal family environment and unequal arbitrary transfer of resources and addressing those requires use of resources over which people already have entitlements to do what they want. These entitlements cannot be overridden consistent with 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.

Vallentyne, Peter. “Left Libertarianism And Private Discrimination”. San Diego L. Rev, San Diego L. Rev., 43 (2006): 981.

Notes: This paper argues that there is nothing wrong with private discrimination, which is discrimination by private individuals and not the state, but that there is something wrong with not promoting equal life prospects, which can sometimes justify prohibitions on private discrimination as it can be an obstacle to the life prospects of some and not others.

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.