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Groups and Individuals

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Opportunities belong to agents. However, when we are concerned with equality of opportunity we may be concerned that each individual has the same opportunities or that certain groups (classified by race, gender, socio-economic class, sexuality or religion) have the same opportunities. In other words, our concern may be that people’s opportunities are not effected by their membership of some disadvantaged group rather than being concerned that each individual has equal opportunity within that group. We can illustrate the difference between these two positions by considering the following example, involving equality of opportunity for college places.

A study shows that members of each group are equally likely to secure a college place, but within those groups likelihood is very unequally (but apparently randomly) distributed.

What we think about this case, and the arguments that can be offered in support of those thoughts, determine whether we ought to be concerned only with inequality of opportunity between groups or also inequality between each individual. Debates about this aspect of Equality of Opportunity have focused on the question of which groups are significant as well as why and whether within group inequality of opportunity is problematic. Historically, of course, greater injustices are evidenced by inequality between groups, including race, class and gender. Some argue that systematic inequality of opportunity along the lines of race, for instance, is more pernicious than somewhat random inequality of opportunity that does not affect one race more than another. Moreover, if we care about integration and diversity at the level of certain social positions, such as political positions, then we may support Equality of Opportunity for groups, but not for individuals. This argument appeals to Equal of Opportunity as an instrument used to promote justice rather than a constitutive element of it.


Anderson, Elizabeth. “Fair Opportunity In Education: A Democratic Equality Perspective”. Ethics, Ethics, 117, no. 4 (2007): 595-622.

Notes: This paper argues that debates about conceptions of opportunity in education should be focused on adequacy rather than equality. Anderson argues that an education adequate for a democracy will qualify students from all backgrounds to attain high positions.

Anderson, Elizabeth. “Rethinking Equality Of Opportunity: Comment On Adam Swift’s How Not To Be A Hypocrite”. Theory And Research In Education, Theory and Research in Education, 2, no. 2 (2004): 99-110.

Notes: This paper argues against Adam Swift’s critique of private schools by claiming that such schools are efficient, that meritocratic conceptions of equality of opportunity are undesirable in K-12 education and the paper develops the idea of solidarity, found in Swift, to apply to the context of democratic citizenship education.

Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative Of Integration. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Notes: The book argues that racial inequality remains great and that segregation, both formal and informal, contributes to this inequality. The solution, Anderson claims, is integration and she defends a qualified account of affirmative action. Anderson also examines a number of political arguments against integration and combines philosophical argument and empirical evidence.

Callan, Eamonn. Creating Citizens: Political Education And Liberal Democracy. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Notes: The book addresses the problem of maintaining liberal democracy, consistent with a commitment to pluralism about how human lives are best lived. The book identifies two fundamental commitments of civic education in liberal democracies as a sense of justice and liberal patriotism and certain rights that legitimately constrain their realization. The book also addresses practical issues around religious schooling and moral discussion within schools.

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.

Liu, Goodwin. “Affirmative Action In Higher Education: The Diversity Rationale And The Compelling Interest Test”. Harv. Cr-Cll Rev, Harv. CR-CLL Rev., 33 (1998): 381.

Notes: This paper argues that diversity norms are of ‘compelling interest’ and that this can justify affirmative action by appeal to the US constitution.

Loury, Glenn C. “Why Should We Care About Group Inequality?”. Social Philosophy And Policy, Social Philosophy and Policy, 5, no. 1 (1987): 249-271.

Notes: This paper examines the effectiveness and the grounds of affirmative action policy. Loury argues that some forms of preferential treatment constitutive of affirmative action actually undermine the basis for cooperation between ethnic groups in the US.

Orfield, Gary, John Kucsera, and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley. E Pluribus.. Separation: Deepening Double Segregation For More Students. Translated by The Civil Righ Civiles. University of California, Los Angeles, 2012.

Notes: This book provides a detailed empirical study of how segregation has affected Latino and Black students.

Roemer, John E. Equality Of Opportunity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Notes: The book sets out and defends a conception of equality of opportunity whereby a person should be held responsible for their choices and not their circumstances. This is in contrast to the non-discrimination approach to equality of opportunity, which is also discussed herein.