Fair Equality of Opportunity and self-realization

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls writes that:

‘[I]f some places were not open on a basis fair to all, those kept out would be right in feeling unjustly treated even though they benefited from the greater efforts of those who were allowed to hold them. They would be justified in their complaint not only because they were excluded from certain external rewards of office but because they were debarred from experiencing the realization of self which comes from a skillful and devoted exercise of social duties. They would be deprived of one of the main forms of human good.’ (TJ, 73 (emphasis added))

This claim appears to be the main justification of a principle Rawls called “Fair Equality of Opportunity” (from now on, FEO)  that forms part of the “democratic equality” interpretation of the second principle of justice. Rawls thinks that this principle has a higher priority than the difference principle (DP) that deals with economic inequality and is satisfied only when the least well off individual gets the highest amounts of good as compared to what he or she would get under any other viable institutional system. This means, basically, that if an economic system satisfies DP but not FEO than we should try to establish FEO even if by so doing we would reduce the amount of income and wealth that goes to the least economically well off members of society (to unskilled labour force). Self-realization must be a really important good indeed, if we are allowed to sacrifice the interests of the many economically disadvantaged members in order that a few of them (those with the best talents) have a reasonable opportunity to get to the positions of highest power and responsibility! What the priority of FEO basically means, in few word, is that  we should’t endorse a policy that would increase the wealth and income of the poorest among africanamerican if by so doing we significantly reduce the possibility for someone like Obama to become the President.

We shall therefore analyze the argument from self-realization in some detail. (Unfortunately the justification of FEO and of its relation to the DP is not at all clear and is subject to many intepretative disputes, as it was evident by listening to some talks at this conference). Here I shall argue that, under a somewhat plausible interpretation, the argument from self-realization fails its purpose.

I shall assume that the idea of the priority of self-realization rests on the following claims:
1) gains of self-realization should be weighed more strongly than gains in material goods like wealth,
2) gains of self-realization derive primarily from accessing those among existing social positions one feels more attracted to,
3) losses of self-realization follow from being unable to access those among existing social position one feels more attracted to;
4) the higher the share of existing social positions one is able to access, the higher a person’s chances of self-realization in that society (from 2 and 3).

The conjunction of (1) and (4) is understood as justifying the superiority of FEO with respect to a “natural aristocracy” where, despite higher abolute levels of wealth for those at the bottom, the children of those born at the bottom (or people subject to racist discrimination) have very little or no chances of accessing positions at the top.

If this is an unacceptable interpretation of the “priority of self-realization” idea, just ignore what I’m going to say next. If I am right, then please read the objection below.

My objection is that 1) 2) 3) and 4) are valid, they justify going beyond FEO+DP in the direction of “social equality”, namely in the direction of simple egalitarian society where DP has no or very little role to play. Consider the following example.

Call S1 a society which satisfies both FEO and DP, which is a complex post-industrial economy with income and wealth distributed more equally than in any society we know of. Now consider S2. You may imagine S2 as an economically more primitive society, e.g. an agricultural society with a lower degree of economic (functional) differentiation than advanced capitalistic society. I shall assume that S2 offers low-talent citizens higher “shares of opportunity”, than S1. What do I mean by that? Just imagine that S2 as simpler society, where social positions are more similar between each other than in S2, in terms of the prerogatives of power and responsibility attached to them and in terms of the qualifications required to access them. In this society, being born with relatively poorer natural talents does not close you off from as many possibility of career as in S1. So In S2 those of low talent and ability will have more “opportunity for opportunities” (access to a larger share of the normal opportunity range), than in S1. (S2 may be considered, if you want, a step ahead with respect to S1 with respect to A. Buchanan’s “morality of inclusion” idea)

If a person’s chances of self-realization are proportional to the share of normal opportunities open to him, the priority of self-realization leads us to prefer S2 over S1. The reasoning can be reiterated a couple of times until we get to a very functionally indifferentiated society with very little (too little!) room for the sort of incentive-generating inequalities that DP is supposed to justify. This clearly shows that the Democratic Equality interpretation of the second principle is incompatible with using the priority of self-realization as a justification of FEO.

(One way to reject my argument is to argue that self-realization does not depend only upon one’s share of the opportunity range, but also upon how vast an array of opportunities one can pick up from (which I accept), so that one reaches a point where any further sacrifice of functional differentiation would reduce a person’s chances of self-realization by reducing the variety of occupations within the normal range of opportunity in absolute terms, while increasing a person’s share of that range. I disagree because the existence of a higher variety of possible occupations to pick up from does not significantly contribute to the self-realization of the least talented individuals, who only have access to the least self-fulfilling ones)*.


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